FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — On a cold Friday in late November, LSU’s offense reverted to its cough-and-sputter ways of the balmier days early in the season.
After three consecutive games with more than 250 yards and an average of 30-plus points per game, the Tigers found themselves unable to move the ball consistently against Arkansas usually-porous defense.
But No. 8 LSU leaned on some familiar stand-bys — just enough offense to get a lead, booming punts from Brad Wing to turn field position to its advantage and a big-play defense that refused to relinquish the lead.
It all added up to a hold-your-breath-to-the-last-second 20-13 victory against Arkansas in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“We didn’t execute like we wanted to running and passing the ball,” said quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who completed 16-of-29 passes for 217 yards, “but when we needed a clutch drive, we got it and when you’ve got a defense and special teams like we’ve got, they help out a lot. We just did enough to win the game.”
The Tigers (10-2 and 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference) reached double-digit wins for the third consecutive season, sixth time in coach Les Miles’ eight seasons and 13th time in school history.
LSU remained in contention for a BCS bowl bid and could still win the SEC West if Texas A&M defeats Missouri and Auburn upsets Alabama on Saturday.
“It’s out of our hands now,” safety Eric Reid said. “We did what we had to do and hopefully some teams come up big (Saturday).”
Arkansas finished 4-8 and 2-6 under interim coach John L. Smith.
LSU’s offense struggled throughout the first half but seemed to gain control when a spectacular, one-handed touchdown reception by Jarvis Landry of a Mettenberger pass in the back of the end zone gave the Tigers a 10-0 halftime lead.
“That should definitely be one of the top 10 (highlights on ESPN),” Mettenberger said.
After the Razorbacks got within 10-3 on John Henson’s 25-yard field goal early in the third quarter, LSU came right back. Michael Ford’s 86-yard return of the ensuing kickoff set up Jeremy Hill’s 1-yard TD.
“Ford’s return was big,” Miles said. “We did have a lot of points, but we scored just enough.”
Tyler Wilson’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Mekale McKay got Arkansas within 17-10 with 5:52 left in the third quarter.
The wind chill continued to dip and the crowd began to warm up as the LSU offense had trouble driving.
After a 44-yard Wing punt late in the third quarter, Arkansas marched toward the Tigers goal line, reaching a second-and-goal at the 1.
Wilson threw an incompletion and was stopped for no gain on a sneak. Smith then opted for a field goal as many in the crowd booed. Henson’s field goal made it 17-13 with 12:17 left.
“It was the right call,” Smith said. “You have to score twice to win it don’t you? I think you have to score twice to win it. You have to take the sure points and then come back and score again anyway. So that was the thought. I think it was the right call.”
LSU averted a disaster on its next possession when it appeared Mettenberger lost a fumble after being sacked but the play was nullified by a false start by wide receiver Kadron Boone.
The Tigers failed to get a first down, but Wing’s 69-yard punt put the Razorbacks at their 20 after the touchback.
The LSU defense forced a punt, then after a three-and-out, Wing hit a 54-yarder to the Razorbacks 38.
The defense forced another punt and the offense mustered its only scoring drive of any length in the second half.
On third-and-10 from the Tigers 36, Mettenberger completed a pass to Odell Beckham Jr. for a first down, and Beckham broke a tackle to turn the play into a 47-yard gain.
That completion helped the Tigers use 4:01 of the clock, and Drew Alleman’s 27-yard field goal pushed the lead to 20-13.
Arkansas got the ball at its 22 after the kickoff. Wilson, who capped a record-setting career by completing 31-of-52 passes for 359 yards, had 88 seconds and no timeouts to work with.
He nickel-and-dimed the Razorbacks to the LSU 18 with six seconds left, but his final pass sailed over McKay in the end zone.
“We love playing defense so we don’t mind being on the field in tight situations,” Reid said. “We only gave up one touchdown and that was exactly what we needed.”
Arkansas zipped down the field, looking as though it was going to score on the game’s opening series. Wilson spread the ball around to Cobi Hamilton for gains of 13 and 12 yards, to Dennis Johnson for 9 and McKay for 17 as LSU missed a few tackles.
But a personal foul penalty on the Razorbacks’ Baron Mitchell moved the ball from the Tigers 6 to their 21. Two plays later, Lamin Barrow knocked the ball loose from Johnson and Chancey Aghayere recovered for LSU at the 2.
“That was a key in the game,” Miles said.
On the first play of Arkansas’ next possession, cornerback Tharold Simon, who had limped off the field during the first possession, returned and intercepted Wilson. He grabbed the ball at the Tigers 39 and returned to the Arkansas 40.
After LSU managed just 8 yards on three plays, Alleman kicked a career-long 49-yard field goal to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead that lasted well into the second quarter.
The Razorbacks stopped Ford for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1, giving them the ball at their 42.
A pass interference penalty on Kevin Minter on third-and-1 gave Arkansas a first down at the 27. After a rush for no gain and an incomplete pass, Arkansas seemed to be setting up a field goal as Johnson ran for 3 yards to the center of the field on third-and-10.
Bennie Logan blocked Zach Hocker’s 40-yard field goal.
Jeremy Hill ran for 22 yards and Spencer Ware for 6 to spearhead an LSU drive. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Razorbacks bench turned a third-and-4 into a first down at the Arkansas 24.
Three plays later, on third-and-8, Mettenberger lofted a pass to the back of the end zone. It appeared beyond Landry’s reach, but he leaped for it parallel to the ground and snared it with his right hand just inside the end line for a spectacular touchdown.
The Razorbacks moved into scoring range with a lot of help from LSU. A personal foul penalty on Barkevious Mingo and a pass interference penalty against Minter helped Arkansas reach the Tigers 26.
After two incompletions, Razorbacks coach Smith opted to try a 43-yard field goal even though it was third down and eight seconds remained. Hocker was wide right, sending LSU into halftime with a 10-0 lead.
Whether it was offense, defense or special teams, LSU always prevented Arkansas from catching up.
“Hats off to the team,” Barrow said. “We have each other’s back. If we keep fighting we always come out on top.”