FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — LSU didn’t attempt to hide its game plan to run the ball and control the clock during its 27-24 win at Arkansas on Saturday. There really wasn’t much Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman and his coronavirus-depleted roster could do about it.
Tigers running back Ty Davis-Price repeatedly slammed into the Arkansas front, finishing the game with 24 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore from Baton Rouge was the featured back in a run game that wore out a diminished defensive front and kept the ball away from a fast-paced Arkansas spread offense.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said more than doubling Arkansas in time of possession — 41:43 to 18:17 — was “the key” in the victory, a win that vaulted the Tigers (3-3) to an even record before playing its highest-ranked opponent next Saturday at No. 5 Texas A&M (5-1).
LSU’s offense wasn’t anything fancy. No, with true freshman TJ Finley starting in just his third game, the Tigers game plan was simple and straightforward.
“We wanted to run the football,” Orgeron said. “We wanted to be in manageable third downs. Short, easy throws. Take the shots when we could.”
This game plan exploited an Arkansas defensive line that only had two players available — defensive tackle Jonathan Marshall and defensive end Mataio Soli — who had significant playing experience before Saturday’s game.
Arkansas had 56 scholarship players available against LSU, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which was just over the Southeastern Conference’s requirement that teams have 53.
The league’s policy says teams must have at least one scholarship quarterback, seven offensive linemen (including one center) and four defensive linemen.
Six Arkansas defensive linemen who had started this season didn’t dress out. They joined the others who had to isolate and quarantine after a few players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week, forcing the program to contact trace.
The outbreak jeopardized the possibility of playing the game, and Pittman admitted his team was looking pretty slim until Friday, after Arkansas’ third round of testing, when the game was officially good to go.
“The bottom line is we had the numbers to play,” Pittman said Saturday, “and that’s the spirit of the game. They don’t ask you who you have to play. They say do you have this amount of numbers? And we did. We want to play, and nobody said a word about it. To be honest with you, we should have played today and that’s what we did.”
Considering the circumstances, the Arkansas defense held firm in the first quarter. LSU punted on two of its three drives, and two long Finley passes set up a 49-yard field goal by Cade York to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
The Razorbacks even led 7-3 at the end of the first quarter, when wide receiver Treylon Burks was freed up on a pick play route for a wide open, 65-yard touchdown reception.
But then LSU committed to its run game. Davis-Price carried the ball five straight times to start the next drive for a total of 39 yards. The drive resembled the overall plan: Run. Short easy throws. Take a shot.
LSU wide receiver Racey McMath then beat his defender on a double move, catching a 30-yard touchdown from Finley in stride to give the Tigers a 10-7 lead with 13:54 left in the second quarter.
The scoring drive took 4 minutes, 46 seconds. LSU had eight drives that took more than three minutes off the clock. Arkansas never had one drive that took that long.
LSU’s 91 offensive plays were nearly double the 53 plays Arkansas ran, but Razorbacks quarterback Feleipe Franks still kept his team within reach. The former Florida Gator completed 17-of-26 passes for 339 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and he attacked LSU’s weaknesses in the secondary when both starting Tiger cornerbacks exited the game.
True freshman Eli Ricks was ejected for targeting in the first half, and All-American Derek Stingley suffered a knee to the helmet in the third quarter, according to LSU radio, and did not return to the game.
“We knew we were going to have to fight,” Davis-Price said. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight from the beginning. We stayed positive on the sideline. We kept each other encouraged and came out with the ‘W.’”
LSU stuck with its game plan even when the offense had to come from behind. Trailing 24-20 with 7:30 left in the game, Finley led a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive that took 3:31 off the clock. The 6-foot-6, 242-pound quarterback had plenty of time to throw on the drive. LSU's offensive line easily held back a fatigued Arkansas defensive front.
Finley was never technically sacked in the game. He was flagged for intentional grounding on second-and-goal during the final drive, but he once again had a clean pocket on the next play to patiently deliver the go-ahead, 13-yard touchdown pass to Jaray Jenkins near the back of the end zone.
Still, LSU's defense needed to produce one last stop with just under four minutes left in the game. The troubled unit mostly improved from its previous bad habits when it was at full strength, forcing five three-and-outs, two sacks and a first-half interception by linebacker Jabril Cox.
Once again, Orgeron said defensive coordinator Bo Pelini's 4-3 defensive scheme was simplified. They stuck with basic plays. They didn't have many checks. Aside from the one long touchdown pass, the defense didn't make many mental errors, which Orgeron thought was "the biggest factor" in the game.
Cornerback Jay Ward replaced Ricks and moved to nickel safety after early struggles, and, in back-to-back plays on Arkansas' final drive, he broke up a crucial third-down pass and partially blocked a 44-yard field goal that would have tied the game.
“Everybody stuck together,” Orgeron said. “Everybody stayed in the game the whole time. The coaches stayed together. You could just feel that al week, and hopefully that will be the way it is from now on and we can build on it.”