Freshman backup quarterback Anthony Jennings leaned into LSU’s huddle in the Tigers’ end zone and delivered one quick message before calling the first play of a pressure-packed, late-game drive.
"I said, `Let’s go. It’s time to go 99 yards,’" Jennings recalled. "There was no doubt in my mind we were going to do that."
Naive? Perhaps. Confident? Certainly — and how prescient.
Jennings, who’d replaced an injured Zach Mettenberger in the fourth quarter, quickly marched the 15th-ranked Tigers to mid-field, then lofted a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 left to pull out a 31-27 victory over Arkansas on Friday in a trophy game known as the "battle for the Golden Boot."
"I was calm and relaxed because I knew my teammates around me had my back," Jennings said. "I’ll always remember this because this is my first significant time playing and I executed. I couldn’t do it by myself, obviously."
Jennings entered the game with less than 7 minutes to play after Mettenberger hurt his left knee. And after Sam Irwin-Hill’s 65-yard punt came to rest inside the 1, the game came down to whether Jennings could drive the Tigers the length of the field in the final 3 minutes.
He responded with a pair of clutch first-down passes to tight end Dillon Gordon and receiver Jarvis Landry, and then a 21-yard scramble to set up his winning pass that kept LSU (9-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) alive for a school-record fourth-straight 10-win campaign.
LSU coach Les Miles marveled at Jennings’ "composure and poise," adding that it would have been disingenuous for him to say he "just expected that" from a freshman quarterback who’d seen minimal playing time.
Yet none of the Tigers doubted Jennings’ ability, not after he quickly rose to second-string.
"He was calm, cool and collected — what we expect from him. He’s a very mature guy," left guard Vadal Alexander said. "He took control of the huddle. The o-line knew what we had to do. … If Anthony has time, we knew he could pick apart a defense."
Miles credited offensive coordinator Cam Cameron for calling the winning play after noticing Arkansas cornerback Jared Collins was cheating inside to help defend Landry in the slot. Sure enough, Durel was wide open.
Brandon Allen completed two touchdown passes to tight end Hunter Henry, the second giving Arkansas (3-9, 0-8) a 27-21 lead that stood most of the fourth quarter. But Jennings’ heroics extended the Razorbacks’ school-record losing streak to nine games and ensured Arkansas’ first winless record in the SEC since joining the conference in 1992.
"This is tough for anybody. We had it there at the end and let it slip away," Allen said. "You aren’t supposed to lose a kind of game like that. … We were able to put up a few points and we for sure would like to have a few more right now."
First-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema could relate.
"I’m numb. I’m frustrated and wanted to have some good feelings heading into the offseason," Bielema said. "I just wanted to give these seniors that Golden Boot trophy and see them run across the field. I wanted to see them celebrate. I wanted our guys to taste it.
"I grew up on a farm," Bielema continued. "You didn’t want certain animals to taste blood because once they taste blood you have got to kill them, because they will keep coming back for it. I think our players will do the same once they grasp it and truly get the feeling of what beating somebody’s will out of them can do to a person. It’ll come, but unfortunately it won’t come until next year."
LSU, by contrast, knows that taste, and its defense sealed the victory when cornerback Dwayne Thomas sacked and stripped Allen and defensive end Jermauria Rasco recovered in the final minute.
The Tigers first three scores all came on long runs. Terrence Magee had TDs of 29 and 23 yards in the first and Jeremy Hill broke loose for a 52-yarder in the third quarter. Hill finished with 145 yards on 20 carries.
Junior receiver Jarvis Landry caught eight passes for 113 yards, including an awkward, leaping circus catch from behind a defender to set up a field goal that cut Arkansas’ lead to 27-24 with about 5 minutes left. That catch came on the 32-yard pass that Mettenberger delivered just as he was hit low and twisted underneath a defender and blocker.
Mettenberger, a senior, finished 14 of 22 passing for 156 yards, becoming the third QB in LSU history to eclipse 3,000 yards in a season. Miles said Mettenberger should heal by the time LSU plays a bowl game — likely in January.
Allen completed 19 of 29 passes for 178 yards. Fullback Kiero Small scored 3 yards out on a direct snap to help Arkansas lead 17-14 at half.