After the most difficult week anyone could ever imagine, things couldn’t have started any better for third-ranked Arkansas in its showdown with No. 1 LSU in Tiger Stadium on Friday afternoon.
Still reeling from the shocking death of backup tight end Garrett Uekman five days earlier, Arkansas knew it had to put its best foot forward in order to have a chance of scoring a big upset and spoil LSU’s hopes for a perfect 12-0 regular-season record.
Before they could add to a surprising 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, however, the Tigers struck for three touchdowns in a span of 4 minutes, 16 seconds on their way to a 41-17 Southeastern Conference victory.
LSU’s 41-3 blitz over the final 40-plus minutes ended Arkansas’ hopes of reaching the SEC Championship game next week and put the Tigers in the title game and perhaps the BCS national championship game as well.
“It was very hard, but I think our team handled it like champs,” Arkansas free safety Tramain Thomas said of coping with the loss of Uekman. “We came out every day and worked hard, and we just came together as a team.”
“It was a brutal week ? it really puts football in perspective anytime you lose a teammate,” said defensive end Jake Bequette. “It was a tough week for all of us. But (practice) went really well, and it was obvious we came in ready to play.”
Arkansas was and played like it getting on top of LSU with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Wilson to wide receiver Jarius Wright on the first play of the second quarter to cap an 11-play, 62-yard drive.
Six plays later, the Razorbacks shocked the crowd of 93,108, the second-largest in Tiger Stadium history, when Thomas popped the ball free from running back Michael Ford and linebacker Alonzo Highsmith returned the fumble 47 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 cushion with 12:11 left in the second quarter.
But that’s where it all went wrong for Arkansas.
A 6-yard touchdown run by LSU’s Kenny Hilliard, Tyrann Mathieu’s 92-yard punt return for a score and a 9-yard TD pass from Jordan Jefferson to Russell Shepard gave the Tigers a 21-14 halftime lead.
Mathieu also had a hand in LSU’s touchdown just before halftime as he ended an Arkansas drive by forcing a fumble that cornerback Ron Brooks recovered at the Tigers’ 34.
“We were playing in one of the toughest environments in country and were up 14-0,” Bequette said. “We just weren’t able to sustain it. LSU did a heck of a job counterpunching with some big plays, that’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country.”
Thomas tried to get his team back into it on the Tigers’ first drive of the second half. He intercepted an ill-advised pass by Jefferson at the Arkansas 12, which the Razorbacks turned into a 29-yard field goal by Zach Hocker that trimmed the deficit to 21-17 midway through the third period.
But the momentum they gained was brief as it only served to motivate LSU, which put the final 20 points on the scoreboard to win going away.
The Tigers’ 21-point surge late in the second quarter was simply too much for the Razorbacks to overcome, coach Bobby Petrino said.
“I think we started out well and took the lead, but made some crucial errors,” he said. “We gave them a big punt return, and then we didn’t play very good two-minute defense after we fumbled the ball when we were driving. That was a huge turning point in the game.”
Petrino said he was proud of the maturity and character his team showed in trying to deal with Uekman’s death.
“We practiced well all week long, and our players came out and competed hard and stuck together as a team,” Petrino said.
Mathieu and LSU’s other playmakers on defense made life miserable for Arkansas’ offense, which led the SEC in scoring, total yards and passing yards going into the game.
The Razorbacks, who were averaging 463.3 yards per game, were held to 254 yards. It was their second-lowest total this season and only the second time they were held below 300; Alabama allowed just 226 yards in a 38-14 win on Sept. 24.
Wilson, the SEC’s leading passer with 292.3 yards per game, was 14-of-22 for 207 yards with one touchdown and an interception while being sacked five times.
Petrino acknowledged Wilson, who was not brought to the interview room after the game, had a tough time dealing with the Tigers’ pass rush.
“Particularly there in the second half,” Petrino said. “It caused him to not look downfield some times, and it certainly made a big difference in the game.”
On the other side of the ball, Arkansas had a difficult time slowing down LSU’s running game - especially in the second half. The Tigers wound up with 286 net yards, with 210 coming in the final two quarters, and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt.
“They’re good at running the ball, that’s what they do,” Petrino said. “I thought we did a nice job defending it in the first half and got ourselves in good situations on the down and distance.
“We had our chances in the game,” he added. “But when you’re playing a really good team like this, you can’t give up a huge punt return and turn the ball over. I think the turnovers were really the thing that killed us.”