Rabalais: LSU boots Arkansas for a much-needed win and a lot to build on — even defense

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A clutch drive.

Clutch defense (really, try not to faint).

And a big-time special teams play.

LSU needed all of this to dig a 27-24 win at Arkansas out of the Ozark Mountain mud on a typically inhospitable November Saturday in these parts.

Compared to some of LSU’s other victories in the Ed Orgeron era, this will rank as a modest win by comparison. Arkansas and its turnaround under first-year and likely Southeastern Conference coach of the year Sam Pittman may be lauded well above its normal station, but that speaks to how bad the Razorbacks were coming into this season. So this isn’t going to rank up there with beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season or pulling one out at Auburn in 2018.

Blocked! LSU beats Arkansas 27-24 on a deflected field goal in the final minutes

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A rain-soaked Ed Orgeron stared from the sideline, hands on his knees, knowing that his defense was LSU’s remaining hope …

Still, this victory feels cut from the same cloth as LSU’s 17-16 win in 2017 at Florida. A win that came a week after that still infamous 24-21 loss at home to Troy. A win that kept the Tigers’ season from careening out of control and put LSU on pace for a return trip to the Citrus Bowl.

It remains to be seen whether this win can be all that for the now 3-3 Tigers, who still have road games with Texas A&M and Florida and (maybe) a home date with Alabama still on the schedule. It’s a win in which you take the pieces that help you and discard the rest on the large pile of moments and mishaps that LSU wants to forget about this 2020 season.

“I’m happy for our football team,” coach Ed Orgeron said at the end of a trying week that included disturbing allegations of mishandled sexual assault claims against his program and his school. “We needed this win.

“We needed a break. These guys fought hard.”

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Fight was something much lacking from the Tigers the last time they took the field on Halloween afternoon at Auburn. After battling those Tigers to a scoreless first-quarter draw, LSU turned pumpkin in an embarrassing 48-11 defeat.

No reason for such blushes for LSU in this one. Oh for sure, the Tigers gave up a host of big plays, six of them for 29, 29, 50, 50, 51 and 65 yards, accounting for 274 of Arkansas’ 443 yards total offense.

But the Tigers also did a lot of things they haven’t done most of the season, basic things like sealing the edges and tackling effectively and, yes, defending passes. LSU held Arkansas to seven three-and-outs plus a third-down interception that linebacker Jabril Cox snatched at the Razorbacks’ 37 that he returned to the 1 to set up a Ty Davis-Price touchdown run.

LSU cornerback Eli Ricks ejected for targeting penalty against Arkansas; see the play

LSU went into halftime with a lead against Arkansas, but it would face the rest of the road game without cornerback Eli Ricks.

Aside from some scrambles by Feleipe Franks, the one-time LSU quarterback commitment, and one 29-yard run by T.J. Hammonds, the Tigers’ stuffed the Arkansas running game in an early Christmas box, allowing just 104 yards on the ground. Davis-Price had as many yards himself on 22 bruising carries.

Arkansas was also 0-for-10 on third down, including most notably a pass break up by Jay Ward on third-and-3 at the LSU 27. The Razorbacks then came out for a 44-yard game-tying field goal try, but Ward, who helped fill in for Elias Ricks after he was ejected in the second quarter, came off the left edge to block A.J. Reed’s attempt and leave it fluttering well short of the goal posts in the soggy north end zone with 1:24 left.

“You go 0-for-10 on third down,” Arkansas receiver Mike Woods said, “you’re asking for it.”

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LSU was 12 of 23 on third down, one of the reasons the Tigers piled up such a stunning 41:43 to 18:17 edge in time of possession. The first four times LSU had the ball in the second half the Tigers’ possessions ended in punts as Arkansas rallied from a 20-14 halftime deficit to 24-20 lead with 12:42 remaining. But with 7:30 to go, LSU behind its freshman quarterback TJ Finley mounted what proved to be a game-winning 67-yard drive.

The Tigers only had to convert one third down on that march but it was a biggie, as Finley found fellow freshman Arik Gilbert for 16 yards to the Arkansas 8 on third-and-9. Finley then shook off the freshman mistake of an intentional grounding call to throw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jaray Jenkins with 3:59 remaining.

They were two of the biggest throws of Finley’s brief career. Throws that will serve his confidence well as LSU goes forward into what is likely to remain a Myles Brennan-less remainder of this season.

“We stalled a little mid-game but we came back alive,” Orgeron said. “We knew it would be a battle and we won.”

Cynics will say Arkansas, which hung in heroically in previous losses to Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Florida, was short-handed. The game was nearly a post-time scratch like they have at Oaklawn down in Hot Springs because Arkansas had a coronavirus outbreak. The Razorbacks were without starting running back Rakeem Boyd, six starters/key contributors on their defensive line and fielded just 56 scholarship players in all.

Scott Rabalais' quick takeaways from LSU's win over Arkansas: Defense, is that you I see?

1. WHAT WE LEARNED

But those are the hard realities of this 2020 season. LSU has known hard breaks, bad plays, opt outs and key injuries. After the Tigers went 15-0 last season, no one has shed a tear for the reigning national champions.

Saturday as they flew back to Baton Rouge, The Boot trophy among their checked baggage, the Tigers had reasons to feel better about themselves. Reasons that have been in short supply this season.

“We can build on this,” Orgeron said.

In a season filled with a lot of tearing down for LSU, that is not an insignificant statement to make.

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