No. 1 LSU accomplished everything on its lengthy Black Friday shopping list.
Get a victory against No. 3 Arkansas and complete the first 12-0 regular season in Tigers history. Check.
Get to 8-0 in the Southeastern Conference West Division and win the outright title in the most competitive collection of teams in the country. Check.
Get a trip to Atlanta to play No. 13 and East Division champion Georgia in the SEC Championship Game next Saturday. Check.
Get within one win of a berth in the BCS national championship game Jan. 9 in New Orleans, and perhaps do enough to wrap up that berth a week early. Check and check.
“There will be a time when I’ll look back and relish in these victories and all the fun we’ve had,” LSU guard Will Blackwell said, “but we’ve got to stay on track and focus on Georgia. Our No. 1 goal has been to win the SEC and hang that banner. We’ve got a great opportunity to do that now.”
LSU faced by far its biggest deficit of the season in falling behind the Razorbacks 14-0 in the second quarter and never blinked. The Tigers fashioned a 21-0 blitz in a span of less than five minutes of the second quarter to take the lead for good and outscored Arkansas 20-3 after that to take a 41-17 victory Friday afternoon in front of the second-largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history (93,108).
“This football team, down 14 points, did not flinch,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “There was never a question in anybody’s mind on that sideline that they were going to respond. It was really just a matter of time.”
The Razorbacks (10-2, 6-2 SEC), who could have created havoc for the BCS by winning and possibly forcing a three-way tie atop the SEC West jumped to the 14-0 lead thanks to a 62-yard touchdown drive and Alonzo Highsmith’s 47-yard return of a Michael Ford fumble. It was just the Tigers’ seventh turnover of the season.
“We came in here wanting to start quickly and score fast,” Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said. “We got the big play on defense and made it 14-0 right off the bat. You have to give them credit, because they stuck to their game plan. They stuck to their guns and moved the ball right down the field after it was 14-0 and got right back in the game.”
LSU had trailed just two other times this season - by three points against both Oregon in the season opener and No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 5. In both cases the Tigers quickly pulled even on their way to victory.
This was the first deficit at home, and some in the crowd started getting antsy, but it would take the Tigers less than nine minutes to erase the deficit, though their ensuing possession got off to a sputtering start. Jordan Jefferson fumbled the first snap and struggled ahead for 2 yards, then Jefferson committed a false start. Jefferson’s 7-yard run and a subsequent 15-yard facemask penalty on Highsmith got the offense started.
The Tigers overcame an illegal motion penalty as Ford rushed for 14 yards and Kenny Hilliard had runs of 3, 7, 4 and 6 yards, the last resulting in a touchdown.
The offense’s first score was followed by the defense forcing a three-and-out and then the special teams making the game’s biggest play. Tyrann Mathieu fielded Dylan Breeding’s punt at the 9, headed left, then cut inside of Jerry Franklin, who slipped, and sprinted up the west sideline using a block from Stefoin Francois to complete a 92-yard return for a touchdown, tying the third-longest in school history and tying the score.
“We were trying to get the ball punted to the sideline and (Breeding) mis-hit it a little bit, he punted it in the middle of the field,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “We had guys right there, and (Mathieu) made a tremendous run. He made a great cut, he made us miss at the point of attack and then made a great play.”
The Tigers were off and running with a 41-3 scoring advantage after the early deficit.
“We never worried about it,” Blackwell said of the deficit. “It wasn’t a big obstacle for us. Fourteen points isn’t a lot for us, especially with the defense we have. They can score in a heartbeat. Whenever Tyrann Mathieu gets close to the ball, he has a chance to take it back.”
It was the first scoring play for Mathieu since a 23-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Kentucky on Oct 1 that capped a string of early-season big plays that made Mathieu one of the most-talked about players in the country before his season took a downward turn that included a one-game suspension for violating team rules.
“He had a lot of big plays today,” safety Brandon Taylor said of Mathieu, who moved from cornerback to safety to replace injured Eric Reid. “He hasn’t had a lot of turnovers the last couple of games so I guess he just made up for it today.”
Miles called Mathieu’s return a “momentum shift.”
“It made the statement that that lead wasn’t going to stand up,” he said, “that the defense was going to continue to play and that offense was coming.”
The Razorbacks were moving into scoring range on the ensuing possession when Mathieu stripped the ball from Dennis Johnson and Ron Brooks recovered the ball at the LSU 34. The offense was much sharper on the next possession, which consisted of five passing plays. Jefferson completed four for 66 yards, with the final 9 coming on a 9-yard touchdown to Russell Shepard with 59 seconds left in the half.
That score completed a 21-0 blitz in a span of 4:16 and sent the Tigers into the locker room with a 21-14 halftime lead.
LSU moved into scoring range on the first possession of the third quarter. But on first-and-10 on the Arkansas 17, Jordan Jefferson was intercepted by Tramain Thomas at the 12 as he tried to force a pass to tight end Chase Clement.
A dump pass from Tyler Wilson to Codi Hamilton turned into a 60-yard completion that set up Zach Hocker’s 29-yard field goal. The kick pulled the Razorbacks within 21-17. LSU then turned to its running game, and Arkansas couldn’t slow it down.
On the ensuing possession, Ford’s 49-yard run set up Drew Alleman’s 21-yard field goal that pushed the Tigers’ lead to 24-17 with 2:14 left in the third quarter.
LSU increased the lead to 31-17 on Spencer Ware’s 7-yard touchdown run with 11:04 left in the game, which forced Arkansas to try to play catch-up. On the Razorbacks’ first play after the kickoff, Morris Claiborne made his team-leading fifth interception of the season. That gave the Tigers the ball at midfield.
“He’s just a dominant player,” Taylor said of Claiborne. “They tried to stay away from his side a lot today, but when they did go to him, he made a big play. I expect teams not to go at him any more.”
Two plays later, Jefferson sprinted 48 yards for a back-breaking touchdown, and Alleman added a 37-yard field goal to complete the scoring with 5:08 left.
“We feel like we’re the best,” Blackwell said, “and we went out there and played like it tonight.”
The Tigers tied a school record with their seventh victory against a Top 25 team this season. Those wins have come by an average of 19 points. The Razorbacks were the third team in the top three to lose to LSU, joining Alabama and preseason No. 3 Oregon.
Arkansas was playing just five days after the shocking death of reserve tight end Garrett Uekman, who succumbed to a heart ailment.
“We got beat by a better football team,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “I am proud of our football team. It has obviously been a tough week for us, but we did a good job in our preparation. Our players came out, competed hard, and stuck together as a team.”
The Razorbacks likely are headed to the Capital One Bowl, while the Tigers head to Atlanta and more than likely to New Orleans after that.
“We’ve got to stay humble, because it’s not over yet,” Taylor said. “We still haven’t got what we want. We can be 13-0 and still lose our last game.”
Whatever lies ahead, the 2011 Tigers have distinguished themselves with their perfect run to this point.
“I think we played a lot of good teams in this season,” Miles said. “We took on all comers, and I think this team is a very, very special team. I’m honored to be their coach.”