FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A rain-soaked Ed Orgeron stared from the sideline, hands on his knees, knowing that his defense was LSU's remaining hope for a win in regulation.
This was not an enviable situation.
Not with a secondary depleted by ejection and injury. Not with a once-neutralized Arkansas offense rejuvenated by explosive plays and long scoring drives. Not even with true freshman quarterback TJ Finley's go-ahead, 13-yard touchdown pass to Jaray Jenkins, which gave LSU its eventual 27-24 victory over Arkansas on Saturday in Razorback Stadium.
No, there was still nearly four minutes remaining. Plenty of time for the nerves to take over. Plenty of time for Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks to lead the Razorbacks (3-5) to the LSU 27-yard line with 1:30 left in the game. Plenty of time for Arkansas kicker A.J. Reed to warm up his leg on a breezy sideline.
Take a breath. Can we reflect for a moment?
Franks had picked apart LSU (3-3) and its diminished defense.
The former Florida Gator finished with 339 yards passing by attacking LSU's weaknesses. When starting cornerback Eli Ricks was ejected for targeting in the second quarter, Franks focused on his replacement, Jay Ward. He threw his way twice: a 50-yard completion to Mike Woods, a sideline pass that drew a pass interference.
LSU nickel safety Cordale Flott flipped positions with Ward, but it didn't matter. Franks then scrambled and dove for a 10-yard touchdown, drawing the Razorbacks within 17-14 with 3:44 left in the half.
Yet, it was this position switch that provided a redemptive moment.
Skip back to the end. LSU's lead was still three. On third-and-3 at the LSU 27, Franks lobbed a swing pass to running back Trelon Smith. Ward, from the nickel, barreled into Smith, dislodging the football. Incomplete pass, fourth down.
Reed entered the field and lined up for a 44-yard kick that could have forced overtime.
Orgeron stared from the sideline. He said he was thinking, "Block it. Just block it, man. Block it or miss it."
Ward swept inward from the left edge, dove and clipped the football with his hands. The ball flopped and spun downward. It landed in the end zone. Securing victory. Securing vindication.
"He hung in there," Orgeron said of Ward. "Jay's a tough young man."
Things were going so well, oh so well for LSU and its troubled defense before problems began to rain down upon the Tigers like the deluge that drenched Razorback Stadium.
There were two sacks. There were five forced three-and-outs. There were turnovers and fortunate breaks.
LSU was primed to bounce back from its 2-3 start, avoiding, yet again, the first back-to-back losses in Orgeron's five-year tenure.
It seemed LSU would rout Arkansas when linebacker Jabril Cox leaped in the middle of the field, snagged a first-half interception and returned it to the Arkansas 1.
A play later, a Ty Davis-Price touchdown, and the Tigers led 17-7 with 4:21 left in the second quarter.
There was a new energy surging through the team, an enthusiasm absent during their beatdown at Auburn on Halloween. That loss felt so long ago after a three-week break that included a scheduled open date and the coronavirus-forced postponement of the Alabama game.
"It was time for us to get that feeling out of us," said Davis-Price, who finished with 24 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown while LSU dominated time of possession, 41:53 to 18:17, against a Razorbacks defensive line depleted by a COVID-19 spread.
But LSU had to dive even further into its depth in the secondary after Ricks' ejection.
LSU's All-American cornerback, Derek Stingley, took a knee to the helmet, according to LSU radio, and was removed from the game in the third quarter with the Tigers leading 20-14.
Orgeron said after the game that he didn't have any further updates on Stingley's status.
True freshman cornerback Dwight McGlothern, who has played minimally in two appearances this season, entered the game.
Franks attacked Flott and McGlothern in alternation: a 29-yard sideline pass to Woods, a 9-yard route to Trey Knox, a deep 50-yard completion to Woods near the LSU 2.
The Tigers defense, reeling, couldn't keep running back Trelon Smith out of the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown run, which gave Arkansas a 21-20 lead with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, the LSU offense was stagnant. The Tigers went three-and-out on their next drive. Then Franks ended the quarter with a 51-yard bomb to TJ Hammonds, testing McGlothern once again.
All at once, the LSU defense's bad habits were coming back. The long pass plays. The open running lanes. Hammonds rushed for 29 yards through a wide hole to the LSU 6.
And then the sky opened up. Rain poured down.
Franks, scrambling on third-and-goal, slipped for a loss of 2 yards. The slip was fortuitous for LSU. The Razorbacks settled for a 22-yard field goal and led 24-20 with 12:42 left in the game.
Both teams traded punts, and Finley began the first game-winning drive of his career at LSU's own 33.
The drive started with a targeting call — disqualifying Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon, who hit Kayshon Boutte illegally — and three Davis-Price runs led LSU to the Arkansas 25.
Six plays later, Finley patiently waited in the pocket and shot the 13-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Jenkins in the back of the end zone.
Finley, who struggled against Auburn, performed well under pressure against Arkansas. The 6-foot-6, 242-pounder, who was playing for Ponchatoula High only a year ago, finished 27 of 42 passing for 271 yards and two touchdowns.
"He showed it," Orgeron said. "He can win the big game in the end."
LSU's defense, too, showed it can win when the game is on the line.
Save for one busted play, a unit that's been highly criticized showed more poise and discipline when it was at full strength in the first half.
Discipline has been at the root of LSU's defensive issues. Blown coverages, misalignments and outright confusion plagued the Tigers in losses to Auburn, Missouri and Mississippi State, when those offenses gained chunks of yardage on explosive plays for a combined average of 8.05 yards per play.
The Razorbacks broke through LSU's defense once in the first half, using a rub route that has done damage to the Tigers secondary before.
Arkansas' Woods, lined up wide to the right, ran inward and collided his defender, Stingley, into Flott, who was covering Treylon Burks. The pick play freed Burks on the sideline for a wide-open, 65-yard touchdown reception that set Arkansas ahead 7-3 with 3:40 left in the first quarter.
A little in-game film: here’s the pick play Arkansas runs. Derek Stingley’s on Mike Woods, who runs inside and picks Cordale Flott. Treylon Burks is wide open for a 65-yard TD. #LSU pic.twitter.com/FfaDWl5txN— Brooks Kubena (@BKubena) November 21, 2020
Aside from the touchdown, LSU's defense showed vast improvements, particularly on the defensive front. LSU's defense only surrendered 4.7 yards per play in the other first-half plays, and Arkansas went three-and-out on four first-half drives.
It was clear from the first drive that Arkansas wanted to attack the sideline and LSU's linebackers, which has been a weakness this season.
Micah Baskerville, starting for the second straight game in place of Damone Clark, helped force a swing pass out of bounds for a short gain on the game's first play. Then, defensive end Ali Gaye batted down a third-down pass that was headed toward the sideline.
On the second drive, Flott appropriately filled a hole and stopped Smith for no gain. Baskerville showed patience on an option play, taking the running back pitch away and forcing Franks inside for a short gain. That produced a long third down, an incomplete pass and another Razorbacks punt.
All half, Arkansas could not find room to run and gained only 32 yards rushing — a number that swelled to 104 total yards with two rushing scores in the second half.
Orgeron said the performance showed the improvements LSU made during its time off. The defense will undergo a much bigger test against No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1) in College Station in a game scheduled for next Saturday.
"We just knew we had to fight to the end," Cox said. "We believed in the next player up, and we continued to fight."