LSU wide receiver James Wright pulls in a 48-yard pass reception in front of Ole Miss defensive back Cody Prewitt during the first half Saturday. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 11:03 PM
BATON ROUGE — By the time everybody in Tiger Stadium managed to take a deep breath and a good sigh of relief, LSU head coach Les Miles had a confession to make.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said.
But LSU survived a near meltdown from its proud defense, three turnovers from its usually sure-handed offense and finally dipped into the history books to escape with a 41-35 victory over an Ole Miss team that seemed in control of the game most of the afternoon.
But when the sun went down and night fell, Tiger Stadium had some of the same magic it had in 1959, when this game caught the attention of the nation.
Jeremy Hill scored the winner, his third touchdown of the game, from a yard out. But it was almost anti-climatic even though the Tigers didn’t get his go-ahead score until 15 seconds remained on the clock.
“Wow,” Miles said. “What a spectacular game.”
Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) wasn’t even ranked against the No. 8 Tigers (9-2, 5-2) before providing one of the more memorable games in the long series.
But LSU couldn’t stop the Rebels — Ole Miss had 463 yards offense and scored more points than LSU had allowed in two years — and the Tigers were doing a far better job of stopping themselves with turnovers and penalties than the Rebels defense.
“It was their night,” Miles said of Ole Miss. “Everything they did, the plays they made the (LSU) ball (fumbled) on the ground at the wrong time, the penalty when we think we have the ball on the 3-yard line — ah, that’s a penalty we have to bring that back.
“It was their night. (But) when you find a team that fights beyond that, that says it’s not going to be ‘their’ night and somehow, some way they find a way to win, man, that is special. There isn’t a question about it.”
The Tigers had history on their side.
For all of LSU’s 427 yards offense, and even a few defensive gems, the biggest play was Odell Beckham’s 89-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, the same distance that clinched Billy Cannon the 1959 Heisman Trophy when he sprinted down the same sideline for a 7-3 LSU victory in the most famous play in the series.
Ole Miss led 35-28 lead when Beckham gathered the 51-yard punt in not too far from where Cannon started his romp into history, picked some blocks for a big S curve before heading down the sidelines, with teammate Jarvis Landry in front and windmilling him to follow him to the end zone.
“That was maybe the biggest momentum changer in a game that I ever saw,” Miles said. “I mean, wasn’t the Billy Cannon return, 89 yards?”
Exactly. To the yard.
“Everyone had their block, everyone had their man and everyone covered their assignments,” Beckham said. “I saw a crease and just hit it. I ended up getting to a wall, but then I saw Jarvis reel me into motion.
“It was an amazing experience.”
But in 1959 LSU also needed a goal-line stand to preserve the winning Cannon return after the Rebels mounted a late march.
Beckham’s heroics only tied the score, and Ole Miss was on the march in the waning moments, with quarterback Bo Wallace continuing his assault on the LSU secondary to land the Rebels at the LSU 16-yard line.
But back-to-back sacks by Anthony Johnson, with an assist from Ego Ferguson on the second, pushed Ole Miss back to the 36 and Bryson Rose missed a 53-yard field goal attempt.
“Those were big-time plays,” said defensive end Sam Montgomery. “You have to come through. No matter what happens, you have to make plays.”
It was the opening LSU was looking for to finish the job.
Zach Mettenberger, who continued his coming-out party with 282 yards passing, promptly completed 4-of-4 passes and the Tigers got a big break with a roughing-the-passer call on his only misfire of the drive.
Hill’s 16-yard run set up the winning touchdown.
“I didn’t feel at any point we were going to lose this game tonight,” said Mettenberger, who was 22 of 37 but also threw two interceptions. “We had a couple of turnovers, but we were driving the ball well. I felt like we had control.”
So did Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, until the fateful punt.
“We had three chances to make tackles there,” he said. “They had a punt block on, didn’t even have a return set up.
“Our punter kicks a great punt.”
Jake Gibbs, the Ole Miss quarterback/punter in 1959, probably thought the same thing.