After QBs put on a clinic, Tigers outlast Razorbacks

NO DOUBTING THOMAS:  Brian Thomas Jr. caught a pair of 49-yard TD passes for LSU in the Tigers’ dramatic win over Arkansas Saturday night. (Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics)

By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – There are so many facts and figures and numbers that tell the story of how the Battle of the Golden Boot went down to the wire here Saturday night.

But here’s the one – neither 12th-ranked LSU or feisty underdog Arkansas had to punt in the final 43½ of 60 minutes.

Dual-threat quarterbacks Jayden Daniels of LSU and KJ Jefferson of Arkansas combined for 693 yards and 7 TDs in a tit-for-tat shootout decided by a 186-pound placekicker who drilled the first game-winner of his life.

Parked on the doorstep of the Razorbacks’ goal line after a near-perfectly timed 72-yard drive, Damian Ramos calmly made a 20-yard field goal with five seconds left for a 34-31 victory.

“I was ready for it,” said Ramos, who kicked just a handful of field goals in his last two seasons in 2019 and 2020 at St. Paul’s High in Baltimore. “I hit a couple balls in the net. I continued my mental routine. I use a lot of visualization. I already saw it go through (the uprights) before I even kicked it.”

Even then, the Tiger Stadium crowd of 99,648 didn’t exhale until LSU cornerback Zy Alexander intercepted Jefferson’s last-gasp Hail Mary heave at the LSU 19 as time expired. It was the fourth straight season the LSU-Arkansas rivalry was decided by a field goal. The Tigers have won three of those nailbiters, but the 16-13 2021 loss to the Hogs in overtime was the last time LSU lost to an unranked team in Tiger Stadium.

The Hogs entered Saturday’s game – the first time the Tigers-Hogs battle royal had been contested in September – unranked and as a 17½ -point underdog. But LSU head coach Brian Kelly, whose team improved to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the SEC West, wasn’t buying that.

“We told our team that they (Arkansas) were going to play their very best, and I thought they played their very best,” Kelly said. “It’s one of those games where we were the last ones to have the football. These are the games you have to find a way to win.”

Offensively after LSU punted twice and Daniels threw an interception on the Tigers’ first three possessions, LSU scored on its final six series – a 24-yard field goal, four Daniels TD passes with two each to wide receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr., and finally Ramos’ game-winner.

Daniels, who completed 20 of 29 passes for 320 yards and those four scoring strikes and had 36 yards rushing on 10 carries, said he overcame his slow start by being true to himself.

“Just keep being me,” Daniels explained how he suddenly found his rhythm ending the first half and opening the second half with a pair of 49-yard TD bombs to Thomas. “Everybody believes in me, the coaching staff and the entire team. So, they knew I was going to come around.”

So did Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman.

“Jayden Daniels played a great game,” Pittman said. “Once he was on, he was on. I thought both he and KJ got better as the game went on. Both got in rhythm and were hard to stop.”

The scoreboard and the stats didn’t lie. Arkansas led 13-10 at halftime, fell behind 17-13, cut the lead to 17-16, got down 24-16, tied the game 24-24, and trailed 31-24 before tying it at 31-31 on Jefferson’s 11-yard TD pass to Luke Hasz.

Though LSU outgained Arkansas 509-426 in total yardage, the Razorbacks held a 34:22 to 25:38 advantage in time of possession.

The Hogs’ scoring drives were methodical and physical, highlighted by the 6-3, 252-pound Jefferson completing 21 of 31 for 289 yards with 3 TDs and 2 interceptions as well as 48 yards on 16 carries despite being sacked four times.

Three consecutive plays Jefferson made in a sequence in the first minute of the fourth quarter to tie the game at 24-24 spoke volumes. He played most of the night like a man among boys.

He got Arkansas out of a second-and-20 hole at the Hogs’ 27 by first scrambling for a 14-yard gain. He followed that by dancing out of harm’s way, relocating to an open space and finding a wide-open Hasz for a 59-yard TD. Then, Hasz caught a Jefferson two-point conversion bullet pass in the back of the end for the tie with 14:11 left in the fourth quarter.

“He’s bigger than a defensive tackle,” marveled LSU linebacker Greg Penn III, who had a team-high 12 tackles along with safety Major Burns.

When LSU linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty that kept alive Arkansas’ final drive, Kelly took umbrage with the nearest member of the officiating crew.

“There was no blow to the neck or head (by Perkins), but he (the official) thought it was unnecessary,” Kelly said. “My response was, `He’s 252 pounds, you try to tackle him.’ We couldn’t get him down on the ground. You can’t bring a rope out there.”

LSU’s final 10-play balanced Daniels completing 3 of 4 passes for 42 yards and running back Logan Diggs gaining 30 of his game-total 97 yards rushing on 14 carries.

At the end, after Kelly milked the clock down to next-to-nothing before Ramos’ field goal, there was just enough time for Jefferson to launch a desperation heave that didn’t really have a chance.

“That’s what you come to the SEC for, two quarterbacks battling and leaving it all out on the field,” Jefferson said. “Even after the game, we shook hands, gave each other respect and moved on.”

While Arkansas (2-2, 0-1 SEC West) next faces Texas A&M in Arlington, LSU plays at Ole Miss in the first of two straight road games. The Rebels suffered their first loss of the season Saturday in a 24-10 loss at Alabama.

“We played well offensively at the end of the first half and in the second half,” Kelly said. “Defensively, there is a lot that has to continue to get better. Most of them are self-inflicted wounds that are going to have to improve as we go on the road these next two weeks.”

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