BATON ROUGE, La. — Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell’s eyes were closed while he stood on the sideline before the game-winning play Friday.
The junior said he was hoping for a “miracle.” But he started to hear a nightmare.
“I heard the crowd. I looked up and one our defenders was getting beat,” Mitchell said. “I was just hoping that he didn’t catch the ball. But he ended up bringing it in.”
LSU’s dramatic 31-27 win against Arkansas in front of an announced crowd of 89,656 in Tiger Stadium proved to be a fitting end for what will be remembered as one of the worst seasons in Razorbacks history. Arkansas had done nearly everything right in taking a stunning lead into the fourth quarter against LSU, only to have things unravel disastrously in the closing minutes.
LSU receiver Travin Dural inexplicably slipped behind Arkansas’ secondary to haul in a 49-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Anthony Jennings with 1:15 left, capping an improbable drive that began at the Tigers’ 1-yard line.
Then, the Arkansas offense — which put together its best performance in conference play — couldn’t answer. Quarterback Brandon Allen was stripped of the ball in the closing seconds after scrambling from the pocket and his fumble was recovered by LSU to end the game.
It left the Razorbacks (3-9, 0-8 Southeastern Conference) wearing the unwanted tag of being the first nine-loss team in school history and also sent Arkansas into the long offseason with a nine-game losing streak. The loss capped the Razorbacks’ first winless season in conference play since 1942, too.
“I’m numb. Frustrated,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said while choking back tears Friday night. “Wanted to give some good feeling going into the offseason. But I think our coaches, our players, people gave up a lot to come here. I know where we’re going to go, I just wanted to give these seniors that Golden Boot.
“I wanted to see them run across the field. I wanted to see them celebrate.”
Arkansas-LSU has produced plenty of memorable moments since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992. Friday’s meeting — which was the final as a regular season-ending game — didn’t disappoint even though the Hogs were 24-point underdogs.
Players said they spent all week determined to bring the Golden Boot back to Arkansas and nearly did thanks to an offense that churned out 360 yards and kept the Tigers (9-3, 5-3) off-balance in the finale. The defense, which was gashed early and allowed 470 yards in the game, chipped in as well by forcing two turnovers and collecting three sacks against senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
It helped Arkansas carry a lead — 17-14 — into the locker room for the first time since the Rutgers loss on Sept. 21. The Razorbacks added to it early in the second half after Alan Turner’s interception lead to Zach Hocker’s second field goal and a 20-14 lead.
LSU raced downfield to score on its next possession, getting a 52-yard touchdown run from Jeremy Hill. But Arkansas, which has struggled with adversity this season, responded once again with a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by Allen’s second touchdown pass to freshman tight end Hunter Henry to make it 27-21.
“I thought this whole game we had it going,” said Allen, who completed 19-of-29 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. “We had it clicking on offense. The run game and pass game had certain things going for us.”
The Tigers appeared to be in more trouble early in the fourth quarter, when Mettenberger was injured while completing a 32-yard pass to receiver Jarvis Landry. The senior had to be helped off the field and was replaced by Jennings, who helped the Tigers complete a drive that ended with a 37-yard field goal.
Arkansas, which gained just 24 yards in the fourth quarter, could not move the ball on its next possession. But the Razorbacks were confident anyway after making a big special teams play on Sam Irwin-Hill’s punt, which was downed at LSU’s 1 with 3:04 left.
“We knew we were going to win the whole time,” Henry said.
Unfortunately, it was just the beginning of LSU’s game-winning march.
The Tigers got off the goal line when Jennings completed a play-action pass to the LSU 19. They moved near midfield when he scrambled 21 yards for another first down. Three plays later, Dural slipped by Arkansas cornerback Jared Collins and Jennings found him alone down the sideline for the 49-yard score.
“If you had told me that was the scenario, I would have said, ‘No way,’” LSU coach Les Miles said. “This group, there is just something about them. They’re competitive, they want to play, they make plays. And no matter what the scenario, I would never count them out.”
Bielema, meanwhile, said it was another case of Arkansas failing at details when it mattered most. The Razorbacks had a safety out of position in their nickel defense on the game-winning pass.
“We were in a deep-half coverage,” said Bielema, whose team had had a fourth-quarter lead three times during its nine-game losing streak. “The deep-half player obviously wasn’t there. It’s a small play in the grand scheme of an entire season.”
It led to a sideline scene that was littered with frustration when the game ended. Henry put his head in his hands on the bench as LSU’s celebration with the Golden Boot began. Allen sat alone a few feet away with a look of disbelief on his face.
Freshmen linemen Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland were the last to leave the field.
Fullback Kiero Small, meanwhile, dropped to his knees, put his head to the ground and had to be consoled by teammates and staff members after his final game. The senior finally got up, found Bielema and embraced the coach before leaving the field with a towel draped over this head.
“I feel bad they had to go through this,” Bielema said, choking up once again.
Arkansas was so close to snapping its long losing streak and gaining an impressive win in Tiger Stadium on Friday. But now the Hogs have to carry a nine-game losing streak, and a conference skid that has reached 12 games, into the long offseason.
“I grew up on a farm and you didn’t want certain animals to taste blood because once they taste blood, you’ve got to kill them because they’ll keep coming back for it,” Bielema said. “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 will come. Unfortunately it can’t come now until next year.”