Tigers having problems closing out games

OXFORD, Miss. — Before the season, LSU coach Les Miles declared that winning the last four minutes of the game would be a prime point of emphasis for the Tigers.

Apparently that project is still under construction.

At Georgia on Sept. 28, LSU took a 41-37 lead with 4:14 left to play but couldn’t hold on as the Bulldogs drove for the game-winning touchdown in a 44-41 thriller.

Saturday night at Ole Miss, the Tigers rallied from a 24-14 fourth-quarter deficit, but again couldn’t come up with one last stop. Rebels’ place-kicker Andrew Ritter drilled a 41-yard field goal with two seconds left to lift injury-riddled Ole Miss to a stunning 27-24 upset of then-No. 6 LSU.

The loss was frustratingly familiar to the Tigers’ last two defeats in 2012: 21-17 to Alabama and 25-24 to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In both of those games, LSU couldn’t score enough points to prevent a last-minute drive from dealing them a gut-wrenching defeat.

“That hurt,” LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “We played with a lot of passion and tried to finish the game right, so it hurts bad losing like that.”

The loss sent the Tigers tumbling to No. 12 in the Harris Interactive poll and No. 13 in the USA Today coaches’ poll (both one-third of the BCS ranking formula) and No. 13 in The Associated Press Top 25.

LSU (6-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) debuted at No. 13, in the season’s first BCS rankings.

While the Tigers managed to navigate their way into the 2007 BCS National Championship Game despite two regular-season losses, LSU’s national title hopes this season appear to be all but over.

The Tigers are still mathematically in the hunt to represent the Western Division in the SEC Championship Game. LSU would need to win out against Alabama, Texas A&M and Arkansas while having Bama (7-0, 4-0 SEC) and Auburn (6-1, 3-1) each lose another conference game.

But even that sliver of hope didn’t seem much to cling to in a somber LSU locker room after the game.

“Right now, we just need to learn from this and get ready to go out” and finish the season, Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “We’ll let the rest take care of itself.”

What looked like a treacherous road trip for LSU going into this season looked more like a likely win as the game drew closer.

Ole Miss (4-3, 2-3 SEC) lost three straight coming in and faced the Tigers with a lineup pockmarked by injuries. On the defensive side alone, the Rebels were missing five starters and had given up 41 points in a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M the week before.

“I couldn’t be more proud of that staff and those kids to go through what they’ve been through,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said, “with the injuries and the outside world having their opinion of things. In the back of your mind, you always wonder as a coach if you can get a team ready to do things like this when you’re shorthanded and coming off an extremely disappointing loss.”

Offensively, though, LSU had its own issues.

The Tigers were without starting fullback J.C. Copeland, who fell in the shower Thursday and suffered a concussion. On LSU’s first drive, starting tailback Jeremy Hill fumbled (LSU recovered) and carried the ball just 15 times the rest of the night, rushing for 64 yards.

Meanwhile, three LSU first-half drives ended in futility as Mettenberger threw three interceptions — two in the end zone — on passes intended for Odell Beckham Jr. They conspired to send the Tigers to the locker room down 10-0, the first time LSU was held scoreless at halftime since the 2012 BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.

“I think we had a good game plan going in,” Mettenberger said. “We just failed to execute. Obviously you can’t go anywhere in this conference, turn the ball over and expect to win.

“This game is really on me.”

To his credit, Mettenberger rallied LSU in the second half, eventually tying the game on a 4-yard pass Jarvis Landry pass with 3:19 left. The score came three plays after Mettenberger hit Beckham for 15 yards on fourth-and-10 from the Ole Miss 31.

Back came the Rebels, though, moving 61 yards in 14 plays to set up Ritter’s field goal. The kick came after Miles called his final time out with six seconds left, though he could have called it with at least 26 seconds left after the third-down run by I’Tavius Mathers to the LSU 24.

Miles said after the game he was focusing on setting up a field goal block. Ferguson had blocked Ritter’s previous field-goal attempt earlier in the quarter.

“I had to do it for my team,” Ritter said. “I didn’t want to let them and these unbelievable fans down.”

The Rebels rolled up 525 total yards against LSU, a season high allowed by the Tigers. Ole Miss starting quarterback Bo Wallace completed 30 of 39 passes for 346 yards, while Jaylen Walton rushed 18 times for 105 yards.

Mettenberger was 19-of-33 for 274 yards.

LSU returns to Tiger Stadium this Saturday for its homecoming game against Furman. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m., the game to be shown on TigerVision, LSU’s in-house pay-per-view network.