BATON ROUGE, La. — Tyrann Mathieu answered the call for a game-turning play when LSU needed one most, and the top-ranked Tigers piled on from there.
Mathieu returned a punt 92 yards for a game-tying score and the Tigers punished third-ranked Arkansas with 286 yards rushing, wiping out a 14-point deficit with a 41-17 win Friday that secured a spot in the SEC championship.
“I could hear my teammates in my ear saying, ‘Man, we need you to go make a play,'” Mathieu said. “I was able to help the momentum really go in our favor.
“You have no idea how bad I just wanted to go out there and make a big play for our team. I was fortunate enough to be able to do that.”
Kenny Hilliard, Spencer Ware and Jordan Jefferson all scored on the ground for LSU (12-0, 8-0 SEC), which is 12-0 for the first time and will play No. 13 Georgia next weekend in Atlanta.
A win over the Bulldogs would assure the Tigers their third trip to the BCS title game in nine seasons. Though at this point, LSU might be able to get there even if it loses.
The rivalry game with Arkansas (10-2, 6-2) for the big Boot trophy was billed as the biggest in Tiger Stadium since 1959, the last time two teams ranked in the top three clashed in Death Valley. Billy Cannon lifted No. 1 LSU to a 7-3 win over No. 3 Mississippi in that game with an 89-yard punt return for a score, so it seemed fitting that the Tigers would get a similar score against the Razorbacks.
“That was a huge turning point in the game,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “We were trying to get the ball punted to the sideline, but he miss-hit it a bit and punted it to the middle. … (Mathieu) made a great cut and made us miss at the point of attack. He made a great play.”
LSU trailed 14-7 when Mathieu fielded Dylan Breeding’s end-over-end kick at his own 8, started left, made a hard cut straight up field, then angled left again to break into the clear.
“It made the statement that that lead was not going to stand up,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Our defense was going to continue to play well and our offense was coming.”
Cannon also made a game-sealing tackle on defense late in that classic game against Ole Miss. Mathieu, who was playing safety instead of cornerback much of the game because of Eric Reid’s injury the previous week, had defensive highlights of his own, forcing two fumbles with strips, one of which he recovered.
He now has six forced fumbles this season. His fifth was a strip of running back Dennis Johnson in LSU territory late in the first half. That set up a touchdown drive that put the Tigers ahead to stay.
It was Mathieu’s third touchdown of the season, his second on special teams, the other coming on a fumble return.
Arkansas took a surprising 14-0 lead on Tyler Wilson’s 13-yard TD pass to Jarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith’s 47-yard fumble return. The largest deficit LSU had faced before Friday was 13-9 against Oregon in the season opener.
The Tigers stormed back and outscored the Razorbacks 41-3 from there.
“This football team down 14 points did not flinch,” Miles said. “There was never a question in anyone’s minds on that sideline we were going to respond.”
LSU’s defense sacked Wilson five times (twice by Barkevious Mingo) and picked him off once on Morris Claiborne’s team-leading fifth interception of the season.
Two plays after the pick, Jefferson ran 48 yards for his score on a quarterback draw that was wide open, making it 38-17.
Wilson completed 14 of 22 passes for 207 yards, with 60 yards on a short pass that Cobi Hamilton turned into a long gain. The play put Arkansas in position to tie the game at 21 in the third quarter, but LSU’s defense forced a field goal that made it 21-17, and the Razorbacks never got closer than that again.
“We played a great team and they came out on top,” said Wright, who came in leading the SEC with 100.2 yards receiving per game, but was held to only one catch by LSU. “They’re the No. 1 team in the nation. Of course, we’re upset about the loss because we definitely could have finished better.”
Jefferson was 18 of 29 for 208 yards and one touchdown, a 9-yard pass to Russell Shepard that gave LSU the lead for good at with 59 seconds left in the first half. His first interception of the season kept Arkansas in the game in the third quarter, but otherwise he was excellent.
Hilliard finished with a career-high 102 yards rushing on 19 carries, while Michael Ford rushed 11 times for 96 yards.
“At halftime our offensive line came in and told us that, man, we were wearing them down and in the second half I think we can beat them up,” Hilliard said. “We came out in the second half and pounded the football right at them. I felt it out there.”
Hilliard’s touchdown came on a tackle-breaking 6-yard run. Ware scored on a similar carry from 7 yards out.
Arkansas has had the better of its end-of-season rivalry with LSU in recent years, having won three of the previous four meetings, including a 2007 triple-overtime upset in Tiger Stadium when LSU was No. 1.
Only a series of unlikely losses by other teams allowed the Tigers to sneak into the BCS title game that season and win their last national title by beating Ohio State.
This the time the Hogs were nearly two-touchdown underdogs, but had pledged to play passionately in memory of late teammate Garrett Uekman, who’d died last Sunday. Coaches wore black ribbons on white shirts, and tight end Austin Tate changed his jersey number from 87 to Uekman’s 88.
Hardly intimidated by a raucous Death Valley crowd, Arkansas built a 14-0 lead that was by far LSU’s largest deficit of the season.
It looked at that point that LSU was going to face its toughest test yet.
Instead the Tigers made it look easy, scoring three straight TDs before the half ended and pulling away in the second half.