ATHENS, G a . — Georgia will be on the LSU Tigers’ minds for a long, long time.
LSU got enough great individual performances Saturday from players like Zach Mettenberger, Jarvis Landry, Anthony Johnson and Colby Delahoussaye to pull off a dramatic victory against the Bulldogs.
But ultimately, LSU had just enough defensive breakdowns, problems winning the line of scrimmage and a critical special teams gaffe to be an anchor on those hopes. They conspired with Georgia to drag the Tigers down to their first defeat of the season by a 44-41 score before a raucous crowd of 92,746 that packed Sanford Stadium to the game’s dramatic final minute.
“We were a mistake or two away from winning that game,” LSU coach Les Miles said, “which was a tremendously competitive game. There are a lot of things that we can correct that will make us a lot better.”
Though the Tigers’ dreams of an undefeated season were dashed, LSU’s major goals remain intact.
LSU (4-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) slipped only four spots to No. 10 in The Associated Press Top 25 and five spots to No. 11 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, keeping the Tigers within reach of the prime BCS contenders. Georgia (3-1, 2-0) replaced LSU at No. 6 in both polls.
Though the loss snapped the Tigers’ 34-game winning streak when scoring 30 or more points and ended a 29-game winning streak of September games, the loss doesn’t wreck LSU’s hopes of winning the SEC West, because Georgia is from the East.
“We are a good football team,” Miles said. “We can prove we can fulfill the goals that we have. I think everything is in front of us.”
With pregame hype that included a visit by ESPN’s “College GameDay” show and more than 600 credentialed media members covering the game from across the nation, the game delivered on expectations of a wild offensive shootout.
In fact, it probably exceeded them.
The Tigers and Bulldogs combined to churn out nearly 950 yards of offense (494 for Georgia, 449 for LSU) and 85 points, resulting in an epic back-and-forth struggle that produced five lead changes and four ties.
“That had to be fun for America to watch,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I thought it would be a knock-down, drag-out fight.”
The lead changed hands twice in the frantic final 4½ minutes alone.
First, LSU surged in front 41-37 with 4:14 remaining on an 8-yard run by Jeremy Hill. The drive was keyed early on by an improbable 25-yard pass from Zach Mettenberger to Odell Beckham Jr. that rescued LSU on third-and-22 from its own 13-yard line.
There was plenty of time, though, for Georgia to respond. The Bulldogs needed just six plays to cover 75 yards, the final 25 on a touchdown pass from Aaron Murray to receiver Justin Scott-Wesley with 1:47 left against the already scorched LSU defense.
It was the fourth touchdown pass for Murray, who three years ago was locked in a spring practice battle with Mettenberger to be the Georgia starter before Mettenberger was dismissed from the program.
Murray completed 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards (he also ran for a score).
“That was awesome,” Murray said. “I’m so proud of the entire team.
“We knew that (it was) going to be a fight, and we were up to it.”
Though his team now trailed again, Miles at least took comfort in the fact Georgia had scored so quickly. That’s because his senior quarterback was having the best day of his college career.
Mettenberger, who grew up in nearby Watkinsville, Ga., and whose mother, Tammy, works in the Georgia football office, got a chance to put LSU back in front or at least tie with a field goal.
But after starting from their 24, Mettenberger and the Tigers could move no farther than their 35. A first-down sack and later four straight incompletions allowed Georgia to run out the clock.
“Unfortunately we weren’t able to connect on a few more passes there at the end,” Mettenberger said.
Still he completed 23 of 37 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns to give him 13 for the season, one more than he had in all of 2012. His yardage was a career high and the most for an LSU quarterback since Rohan Davey threw for 444 yards in the 2002 Sugar Bowl against Illinois.
Ten of Mettenberger’s passes went to Landry for 156 yards and a touchdown, both career highs for the junior receiver.
And Delahoussaye, the redshirt freshman kicker who hadn’t even attempted anything beyond 28 yards this season, made critical field goals of 49 and 39 yards to keep LSU in the fight.
But the offensive balance LSU strives for in every game was notably lacking.
The Tigers netted just 77 yards rushing (LSU had only 13 at halftime) as the offensive line was unable to blow big holes in the Georgia front or keep Mettenberger from being sacked four times.
Defensively, LSU was unable to sack Murray, though defensive tackle Anthony Johnson did record his first career interception in the first quarter to set up the second of two Mettenberger touchdown passes to Kadron Boone.
Just as critical, Georgia rushed for 196 yards despite preseason All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley leaving the game with a second-quarter ankle injury. And Johnson’s interception was offset by a muffed punt by Beckham that set up a Bulldogs’ touchdown.
“This is a tough loss,” linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “Not that many teams have put up that many points on this defense in a long time.
“I’m not going to dwell on it too long, though. We’ve got Mississippi State next week so we’ve got to move on to the next game.”
LSU hits the road again this Saturday for a 6 p.m. game at State. The game will air on ESPN.