What TJ Finley showed on clutch LSU drive to beat Arkansas: ‘He can win a big game’

With LSU trailing Arkansas late in the fourth quarter, coach Ed Orgeron heard reassurance. His players told him “we got this” during their game-winning drive, and in the midst of them, Orgeron felt confidence radiate from the most important player on the field, quarterback TJ Finley.

Making his third start, Finley completed a go-ahead touchdown in the closest game of his career Saturday against Arkansas, setting the stage for a blocked field goal as LSU won 27-24 inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

As the game-winning play developed, Finley shuffled to his right. He bounced inside the pocket, creating time for his receivers running through the end zone. Finley redirected his vision. He pumped once, saw Jaray Jenkins and threw a 13-yard touchdown.

“He showed he can win a big game at the end,” Orgeron said.

Including the final drive, Finley made throws in crucial situations throughout the game, demonstrating an essential ability for any quarterback. He completed seven passes for third-down conversions. He kept LSU’s offense on the field, a key part of the game plan. And when LSU needed a touchdown to retake the lead, Finley delivered.

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 …

The final drive began within LSU territory. The Tigers trailed 24-20 midway through the fourth quarter, their offense having failed to score in the second half. They had one, maybe two, chances to retake the lead.

Finley completed a 15-yard pass on the first play. He led LSU across the field, their progress aided by a targeting penalty. Outside the red zone, Finley lofted a perfect pass to running back Tyrion Davis-Price, only for referees to determine Davis-Price dropped the potential touchdown. They upheld the call after review.

Two plays later, on third-and-9, Finley found tight end Arik Gilbert for 16 yards, positioning LSU deep inside the red zone. After an intentional grounding penalty, Finley threw the go-ahead touchdown. Finley jogged into the end zone to celebrate with his teammates.

“We love TJ,” Davis-Price said. “He held it down for us this game.”

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Before LSU played Arkansas, Finley’s career consisted of two drastically different starts. He shined in his debut, then he had three turnovers in a loss to Auburn, forcing LSU to bench him in the second half. LSU reopened the quarterback competition between Finley and freshman Max Johnson with redshirt junior Myles Brennan possibly out for the season because of an injury.

Johnson missed a week of practice because he entered coronavirus quarantine, and Finley held onto the starting job. Orgeron said he wanted to play Johnson against Arkansas. Instead, Finley never left the game.

LSU’s game plan hinged on running the football. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger wanted to run on early downs and create manageable third down conversions, especially because Arkansas played without six defensive linemen because of coronavirus issues, according to the SEC Network. The plan, if executed, would give Finley short throws and the occasional deep pass.

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Unlike when LSU gained 32 yards rushing in its last game against Auburn, the Tigers rushed for 148 yards. They averaged 3 yards per carry, but the approach drained the clock, limiting Arkansas’ possessions. Though Arkansas finished with more total yards and more yards per play, LSU held the ball for 41 minutes.

“LSU had the ball the whole time,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. “They controlled the football game.”

Finley completed enough throws to maintain drives. He fit passes into narrow windows and navigated the pocket under pressure. At the end of the first half, he rolled to his right and threw across his body for a first down, helping LSU reach field goal range.

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The Tigers might’ve scored more points if holding penalties didn’t negate two long completions in the second half. LSU still went 12 for 23 on third down. Seven of the conversions came from Finley, who completed 64% of his passes (27 of 42) for 271 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception.

Orgeron said after the game Finley needs to better key and diagnose defenses when plays quickly develop, but by leading LSU to a game-winning drive, Finley proved he can operate in the final minutes of a close game.

“It gives us great confidence,” linebacker Jabril Cox said. “Our belief in TJ is very strong.”

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