LSU hangs on in blow-for-blow battle against Ole Miss, one game from clinching SEC West

4 weeks ago The Advocate 0

OXFORD, Miss. — For most of Saturday night, the warmly bundled crowd at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium was witnessing a thumping, and they may have asked each other a variation of the famous Ole Miss chant: Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty, Who The Hell Are They?

Between the strobe-flashing stadium lights in the pregame and the quick touchdown drives in LSU’s 58-37 win over Ole Miss, it was hard to get a long look at the Southeastern Conference’s premier team, just one win away from clinching the Western Division title for the first time since 2011.

All is settled in the East.

Georgia’s 21-14 win at Auburn on Saturday afternoon placed the Bulldogs in the SEC title game on Dec. 7 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

All that stands in the way of No. 1 LSU (10-0, 6-0 SEC) joining Georgia is a home win against Arkansas (2-8, 0-6) next week, or one against Texas A&M (7-3, 4-2) the following week if need be.

At first, LSU made a strong case to remain first in the College Football Playoff rankings, with Ed Orgeron’s Tigers dominating in the first half.

But in the second half?

The LSU defense could also use the Ole Miss chant, in its original form, asking: Who The Hell Are We?

Ole Miss had 614 offensive yards — the most surrendered by LSU since it allowed 632 in a 44-15 loss to Florida in 2001 — and 405 of the Rebels’ yards came in the second half.

“Our object was to win the game, and we won it by 21 points,” Orgeron said. “But obviously when you don’t play well on defense at LSU, nobody’s feeling good.”

Still, Orgeron said “there was no hangover” in Oxford, the town where he was fired after three unsuccessful seasons in his first head coaching job. But there also was no steamrolling, convincing beatdown by a team destined for the playoffs.

It was hardly a fight at first, when LSU went up 28-0 midway through the second quarter.

At that point, the playing field served just as a stage for the LSU offense to break its school records.

Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow threw 17 straight completions, a school-record streak that lasted until the third quarter.

The Heisman Trophy front-runner tossed with ease on a two-play drive where he completed a wide open 22-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase off a run-pass option play, then lobbed a 51-yard touchdown pass to Chase on the run to go up 21-0 early in the second quarter.

Burrow completed four more passes on the following drive, flipping a sideline pass to Justin Jefferson for a 12-yard score to go up 28-0 with 8:27 left in the first half.

Burrow finished 32-of-42 passing for 489 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

LSU finished with 714 yards of offense, its most since 746 in a 77-0 win over Rice in 1977 and the most ever in an SEC game.

“We had over 700 yards of offense,” Burrow said with a grin. “So it wasn’t a terrible day.”

In the first half, the Ole Miss offense was having a terrible day.

The Rebels produced 110 yards in their first four drives and were 0 for 4 on third down.

Only twice did Ole Miss enter LSU territory, and on its third drive, Rebels quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was dropped for a 1-yard loss on a third-and-1 by LSU safety JaCoby Stevens, forcing a punt.

The Ole Miss offense was so ineffective, Rebels coach Matt Luke sent in backup quarterback Matt Corral to play in the following drive, which resulted in another punt.

Then, the zone-read-spread offense by Ole Miss offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez — a former head coach who won four Big East championships at West Virginia — started to confound the LSU defense.

After LSU went up 28-0, Ole Miss running back Jerrion Ealy snuck behind two pulling offensive linemen and cut outside LSU safety Grant Delpit to the sideline for a 49-yard run to the LSU 26. Six plays later, Plumlee rushed for a 6-yard touchdown inside the right pylon to pull within 28-7.

“Touchdown, Plumlee” became a familiar refrain.

The 6-foot, 192-pound freshman rushed for 212 yards and four touchdowns, the most rushed against LSU in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s four-year tenure and the most by an Ole Miss quarterback in school history.

On the second play of the second half, Plumlee pulled a zone-read keeper to the right sideline, and there was no LSU defender in sight on his 46-yard touchdown to pull Ole Miss within 34-15.

“I really didn’t expect us to be that far out of position,” Orgeron said.”That’s uncharacteristic for us to give that many big runs up.”

Plumlee pulled off another tricky move on the next drive, running a quarterback counter that deked LSU linebacker Patrick Queen and Delpit too far to the left, and Plumlee rushed untouched for a 60-yard touchdown to make it 34-23.

The only thing that seemed to keep LSU away from a second-half upset was its own record-breaking offense. But even that came up short at times.

Burrow led a four-play drive in the third quarter, unfurling a 48-yard pass to Jefferson, then tossing a 7-yard touchdown to Jefferson on the next play to go up 41-23.

But then, Burrow threw interceptions on consecutive drives, only the second time in his collegiate career he’s thrown for multiple interceptions in a game (the other was a two-pick game in LSU’s 27-19 loss at Florida last season).

Plumlee split LSU’s defense on a one-play drive, rushing for a 35-yard touchdown following the first interception to shrink LSU’s lead to 44-30 with 13:25 left in the game, but the Tigers defense flexed on the following drive, when Plumlee’s fourth-down pass at the LSU 35 fell incomplete.

LSU then distanced itself for good: Chase turned a mid-range pass from Burrow into a 61-yard touchdown to go up 51-30.

The final two touchdowns of the game were nominal — Corral’s 55-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Moore and LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s 49-yard touchdown run — succeeding only in making the teams’ combined yardage (1,328) the third-highest total between two SEC teams in league history.

Amid all the yardage and points, a singular point stands clear.

“If we go into the playoff, or we go to the SEC championship, we need to remember this,” Stevens said, “because this is definitely a loss for the defense.”