BATON ROUGE, La. — With the light nearly turned out on its season, LSU’s defense did what it hadn’t done all day against Ole Miss.
First, Anthony Johnson brought down the Rebels’ Bo Wallace for an 11-yard loss. Then, Lavar Edwards did the same, dropping the Ole Miss quarterback for a seven-yard sack.
Bryson Rose pushed a 53-yard field goal attempt wide right, LSU’s offense took over and as the clock ticked away towards zero, Jeremy Hill punched up the Tigers’ victory with a 1-yard touchdown run.
With the 41-35 win, LSU, ranked No. 7 in the latest BCS poll, kept alive hopes of a prestigious bowl berth.
‘Those are big-time plays by big-time players,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said of the two sacks. “That’s something we practice as a d-line. You have to come through and no matter what happens, you have to make those big-time plays. Players had to step up. That’s what my teammates are trained to do.”
LSU (9-2, 5-2 SEC) was only in position to pick up the win, however, thanks to Odell Beckham Jr.’s zigzagging 89-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The sophomore kept the Tigers in the game, tying it at 35 with 9:10 to go.
Afterward, LSU coach Les Miles said Beckham deserved a game ball, calling the play the biggest swing of momentum in the game.
Beckham, meanwhile, credited those around him for giving him the space to make the exhilarating run.
“I saw a crease and I just hit it,” he said. “I ended up getting to a wall but then I saw Jarvis (Landry) reel me into motion. It was an amazing experience and definitely changed the momentum of the game and I just have to thank God for it.”
Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5) now is left wondering "what if" after taking the Tigers to the brink of BCS bowl extinction, leading with just 11 minutes to go in the game before falling for the third time to a Top 12-ranked team.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, maybe not at this level, but this here is one of the three most-difficult locker rooms to be in this year and this season,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said."
Zach Mettenberger was 22 of 27 for 282 yards and two interceptions for LSU, which also got 77 yards and three touchdowns on the ground from Hill.
The Tigers were only 7 of 17 on third down and committed six penalties for 56 yards. More importantly, they had trouble inside the 10, twice being forced into field goals and turning the ball over another time once there.
Ole Miss put up a fight thanks to an explosive offense that racked up 463 total yards. Wallace finished 15 of 35 for 310 yards and two touchdowns passing and another 54 yards and two touchdowns rushing. But he threw three big interceptions.
Donte Moncrief finished with 161 yards and two touchdowns on six catches for the Rebels.
“We kind of expected a balanced run-pass,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “They came out slinging it. Quick throws. Screens. Getting the ball out fast. I guess we should have expected it. That’s what everybody has been doing to us so far this season. I guess we thought it’d be a little more run downhill.”
Wallace put the Rebels on top 7-0 with a career-long 58-yard touchdown run, outsprinting LSU’s Kevin Minter into the end zone after getting Mingo to bite on the fake handoff, opening up the outside for him to dash around.
LSU needed only 21 seconds to tie the game at 7, gobbling up 75 yards in two plays. Hill capped the drive when he cut back through a hole and galloped past the Rebels’ secondary for a 27-yard touchdown.
Ole Miss answered with another long-range strike for a 14-7 lead. Wallace hit Moncrief to his left and the receiver did the rest, stutter-stepping past LSU cornerback Tharold Simon. The score marked the first time all season LSU had given up 14 first-quarter points.
Moments later, the Tigers were in position to tie the game after Deion Jones recovered a muffed punt return by Ole Miss’ Korvic Neat at the Rebels’ 18. But LSU was unable to score from inside the 5 and Drew Alleman’s 22-yard field goal made it 14-10.
LSU then took the lead thanks to its second take-away of the day. Tigers cornerback Jalen Collins intercepted a pass off of Moncrief’s hands and, eight plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Spencer Ware hurdled over the line and into the end zone for a 17-14 LSU lead.
The Rebels struck back just before halftime when Wallace capped a 97-yard drive with 1-yard touchdown run. LSU trailed 21-17 and a sold-out Tiger Stadium sat stunned.
Simon gave LSU an early second-half possession when he intercepted Wallace on the second play of the third quarter, returning it to the Rebels’ 20. However, Ole Miss held the Tigers inside the 10 and Alleman’s 24-yard field goal pulled LSU to within 21-20.
The Tigers were in position to take the lead midway through the third quarter. On third down at the 8, though, Mettenberger threw an interception in the end zone, making LSU just 1 of 4 on possessons inside the 10-yard line at that point.
Ole Miss would eventually make LSU pay for the inadequacy in the red zone. After a second Senquez Golson interception of Mettenberger, the Rebels punched a 28-20 lead when Louisiana native Randall Mackey scored on a 6-yard run late in the third quarter.
LSU’s offense got uncorked finally, driving 88 yards in 12 plays, using eight passes and four runs to traverse nearly the entirety of the field. Hill’s two-yard touchdown run gave the Tigers a score inside the 10 and then Mettenberger hit Ware for the 2-point conversion and with 11:39 to play, the game was tied at 28.
Twenty-eight seconds later, Ole Miss regained the lead 35-28 after Wallace hit Moncrief for a 30-yard touchdown.
And then Beckham answered, returning a punt 89 yards for touchdown to tie the game at 35 and awaken those still in the stadium and set up the frenetic finish.