The LSU-Ole Miss game was predestined to be a memorable one for the 15 seniors playing their last game in Tiger Stadium.
Then the Tigers and Rebels turned Saturday’s latest edition of this heated and historic rivalry into one that won’t soon be forgotten.
No. 8 LSU scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and finally slowed Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace just enough to escape with a drama-filled 41-35 Southeastern Conference victory.
Freshman Jeremy Hill ran 1 yard for his third touchdown with 15 seconds remaining to give the Tigers just their second lead of the game, but the only one that mattered. The Rebels marched through LSU’s highly ranked defense for 463 yards, but the Tigers mitigated that with four takeaways, including three interceptions.
LSU twice had to settle for Drew Alleman field goals in the red zone and Alleman missed another kick, but the Tigers scored touchdowns on their last two red-zone trips, and Odell Beckham Jr. returned a punt 89 yards for a tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Zach Mettenberger threw two interceptions but stood his ground gamely against Ole Miss’ fierce pass rush. He was 22-of-37 for 282 yards.
“Wow, what a spectacular game that was. Are you kidding me?” LSU coach Les Miles said. “It was a wild and woolly one.”
LSU, 9-2 and 5-2 in the SEC, concludes the regular season Friday at Arkansas. The Rebels, 5-6 and 2-5, need a victory against Mississippi State next Saturday to become bowl eligible, though they certainly looked bowl worthy against the Tigers.
“We’re having to play a lot of kids a lot of snaps,” Ole Miss first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. “We just couldn’t seem to get a stop or a touchdown when we had to have one. We made a lot of big plays against a fine football team. It was a great game in this rivalry.”
Ole Miss took a 28-20 lead into the fourth quarter, which began after sunset and seemed to breathe life into LSU as it faced the depth-challenged Rebels, who had 11 fewer scholarship players than is the norm for an SEC road team.
The Tigers responded with their best sustained drive. Hill’s 1-yard touchdown run completed an 88-yard march in 12 plays, and Mettenberger passed to Spencer Ware for the two-point conversion to tie the score with 11:39 remaining.
The Rebels and Wallace, who passed for 310 yards on 15 completions, including two touchdowns, were unfazed. On the first play after the kickoff, Wallace found Vince Sanders for a 35-yard gain to the LSU 30. Three plays later, Wallace threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief that gave Ole Miss a 35-28 lead.
On the ensuing possession, Mettenberger, who was sacked just once but hit hard numerous times, was knocked briefly from the game when he threw a 5-yard completion to Travis Dickson, who had five catches for 69 yards — his only receptions of the season. Stephen Rivers replaced Mettenberger and threw an incomplete pass on third down.
The Rebels, who had driven 65 and 38 yards for touchdowns on their previous two possessions, suddenly started getting beaten at the line of scrimmage and went three-and-out. Mettenberger, who appeared ready to re-enter the game, got some extra time to recuperate when Beckham returned Jim Broadway’s punt for a tying touchdown with 9:10 left. Beckham started left, cut back in the other direction, bounced off two Rebels and followed a convoy of blockers up the right sideline.
“Everyone had their block, everyone had their man and everyone covered their assignments,” Beckham said in a statement. “I saw a crease, and I just hit it. I ended up getting to a wall, but then I saw Jarvis (Landry) reel me into motion.”
Ole Miss went three-and-out again, and LSU was quickly approaching scoring position until Landry fumbled at the end of a 30-yard completion and Mike Marry recovered for the Rebels at their 32.
A facemask penalty on Tigers defensive tackle Bennie Logan and Wallace’s 37-yard completion to Randall Mackey, who scored on a 6-yard run in the third quarter, put Ole Miss at the LSU 16. But the Tigers pushed the Rebels backward. Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson dropped Carlos Davis for a 2-yard loss. Johnson sacked Wallace for an 11-yard loss, and Lavar Edwards got him for a 7-yard loss.
“Those were big-time plays,” defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “No matter what happens, you have to make those big-time plays.”
That left Ole Miss with fourth-and-30, and Bryson Rose was wide right on a 53-yard field goal with 4:18 left.
Mettenberger completed four consecutive passes to four different receivers before Denzel Nkemdiche was called for roughing Mettenberger. That moved the ball to the Rebels 20, and Hill’s 16-yard run set up his decisive score.
“You have to play four quarters of football,” Ware said. “That’s what this program teaches us.”
The Tigers finished more strongly than they started, falling behind 7-0 in the first quarter — just as they had a week earlier before recovering in a 37-17 victory against Mississippi State. Wallace’s 58-yard TD run put Ole Miss on top, but LSU needed just two plays to tie it when Mettenberger’s 48-yard pass to James Wright preceded Hill’s 27-yard run.
A 56-yard touchdown pass from Wallace to Moncrief, who finished with 161 yards and two touchdowns on six catches, gave the Rebels a 14-7 lead after one quarter. Alleman’s 22-yard field goal and Ware’s 1-yard run gave the Tigers their first lead at 17-14 in the second quarter, but Wallace’s 1-yard run sent Ole Miss into halftime with a 21-17 lead.
A 24-yard field goal by Alleman and Mackey’s touchdown left the Rebels with an eight-point edge entering the final quarter.
“I didn’t feel at any point that we were going to lose this game,” Mettenberger said.
In the end, the seniors left with the most important parting gift — a victory that kept LSU’s BCS bowl hopes alive.
“It was emotional today at the hotel during our pregame,” Ware said. “The seniors got up there and expressed their feelings about how it was their last game and what kind of mark they wanted to leave tonight.”
The mark the Tigers left was a memorable W.