By Chris Macaluso
Special to LSUsports.net
BATON ROUGE -- Arkansas and LSU met in a familiar position Saturday in Tiger Stadium. Like last season and the season before, a win in the regular season finale' would send the Tigers to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
Last year in Little Rock, Razorback quarterback Matt Jones drove a dagger into the Tigers with a long touchdown drive with less than one minute to play sending his team to the show. This season, LSU disarmed Jones before halftime as 92,213 wind-whipped fans watched the Tigers slaughter the Razorbacks 55-24.
The win moves the Tigers into the conference title game for the second time in the last three seasons and also keeps alive LSU's hopes at a national championship game appearance in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans in early January. LSU's record improved overall to 11-1, 7-1 in the SEC while Arkansas fell to 8-4 overall, 4-4 in conference play.
"I'm very proud of our football team for a lot of reasons," said Tiger Head Coach Nick Saban. "We really dominated the game after we got going. I'm proud of the way our players played today. I'm also proud of the way we competed all season long."
Both teams exchanged punches throughout the first and early second quarters as each scored three times in the first 23 minutes of the game. But LSU throttled Arkansas on both sides of the ball and on special teams after that point leaving any hope of a Razorback upset far out of reach.
The Tigers were aided by five Razorback turnovers, three of which came in the first two quarters helping LSU score the last 17 points of the first half.
"When you play a team that good you can't give them gifts," Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt said. "That second quarter flurry really hurt."
LSU's championship game plans took an early hit as Matt Jones lobbed a screen pass along the west sideline to DeCori Birmingham who sprinted into the endzone untouched 54 yards later. The point after capped a three-play 61-yard drive that ran just 1:11 off the clock and gave the Razorbacks a 7-0 lead with 11:37 to play in the first quarter.
That was one of the few beneficial passes for Jones, however as he completed just three more passes the entire game for 100 yards, another touchdown and two interceptions. Tiger quarterback Matt Mauck excelled in a pressure situation again as he completed 12-19 passes for 186 yards and four touchdowns.
LSU's response came on the ensuing drive as Tiger tailback Justin Vincent carried his team to the Razorback 20 yard line with three runs of 10 yards or more. The LSU drive stalled just outside the red zone, though and the Tigers settled for a 38-yard Chris Jackson field goal into the teeth of a 25 mile per hour wind to cut the Arkansas lead to 7-3 with 6:26 left in the first quarter.
Vincent led the Tigers ground attack with 112 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns. The LSU offense as a whole gained 250 rushing yards.
Jackson attempted to avoid the wind on the following kickoff by squibbing a line drive short of the Arkansas deep backs giving the Razorbacks decent field position at their own 33-yard line. But, after recovering his own fumble on the first snap of the drive, Jones fumbled on the second play as well as Tiger defensive end Marcus Spears knocked the ball clean and linebacker Eric Alexander recovered and scrambled 25-yards for a go-ahead LSU touchdown. Jackson's PAT gave his team a 10-7 advantage with 5:30 to play in the opening quarter.
The Razorbacks fought back on the next drive to tie the score as Jones and senior tailback Cedric Cobbs led their team to the Tiger 24-yard line before Chris Balseiro split the uprights on a 40-yard field goal to knot the score at 10-10 with 2:01 left in the first quarter.
That tie lasted exactly 2:44 as Tiger wideout Michael Clayton gave LSU a one- touchdown advantage by lunging over the south endzone goal line with a Razorback defender draped over his back. Clayton's effort not only gave the Tigers the lead but also gave him the LSU career record for receiving touchdowns with 20. Jackson's point after extended the lead to 17-10 less than one minute into the second quarter.
But the Razorbacks appeared anything but defeated by the quick LSU score as Cobbs ran off 76 yards on the Tiger defense in just two plays to help his team tie the score again. Cobbs' 56 and 20 yard runs ran just 22 seconds off the game clock before Balseiro added the tying point after with 13:40 to play before halftime.
Cobbs finished the contest with a game-high 169 rushing yards on 21 carries. The Razorbacks amassed 301 total yards of offense against a vaunted Tiger defense while LSU managed 436 total yards.
LSU appeared to be in position to break the tie again with a first and goal opportunity at the Razorback nine-yard line on its next drive. But the drive ended when Vincent was stripped of the ball at the Razorback 11.
The Tigers got another first and goal at the nine-yard line just six plays later as Arkansas failed to move the ball past its own 24-yard line after the Tiger fumble and Razorback punter Jacob Skinner dropped the snap on his fourth-down punt attempt. Freshman defensive back Daniel Francis recovered the drop on special teams giving Mauck the chance to find Skyler Green open in the back of the endzone three plays later from two yards out with 6:35 left in the half to give the Tigers the lead again.
Jackson extended the Tiger lead to two scores with a 47-yard field goal on LSU's next offensive possession. The scoring drive ran 3:50 off the first-half clock and gave the Tigers a 27-17 advantage with 1:42 left in the second quarter.
Arkansas' Jones handed LSU its next scoring chance 30 seconds later by foolishly heaving a pass into the wind while eluding the Tiger blitz. Jones' lobbed ball was intercepted by Corey Webster at the Razorback 39 setting up Mauck's chance to find a wide-open Devery Henderson in the south endzone three plays later with 51 seconds left in the half. The point after extended the lead again, this time to 34-17 and sent the Arkansas players into the locker room with hanging heads.
The Razorbacks took the ball to begin the second half but were forced to punt after Matt Jones was sacked by Spears at the Arkansas 7-yard line. Three plays later, Mauck found LSU tight end David Jones unguarded deep in the Razorback defense for a 37-yard pass and catch to turn the once--tight contest in the direction of a route. Jackson's point after gave the Tigers a 41-17 lead after just a 17 second, two-play drive.
LSU kept on that route road on its next offensive chance by pounding the ball down the heart of the Razorback offense with long running plays. The most impressive of the lot was the last as Vincent burned past the Arkansas defensive backs for a 23-yard touchdown run capping a 57-yard drive and helping his team to a 48-17 advantage with 4:16 to play in the third quarter.
Webster contributed to the Tiger pile-on by hauling in his second interception on another ill-advised Matt Jones pass on Arkansas' ensuing drive. Webster's sixth interception of the season came at the Razorback 37 yard line giving Mauck and the Tigers another short scoring drive. Vincent finished this one with a two-yard scamper untouched into the north endzone to give LSU a 55-17 lead with less than one minute to play in the third quarter.
Arkansas added a late fourth-quarter touchdown on a 16-yard pass from Matt Jones to Birmingham to wrap up the scoring for the contest.
LSU's SEC Championship opponent could be determined on the field tomorrow, especially if Tennessee loses to Kentucky in which case Florida would play the Tigers. However, there is a chance either Tennessee, Georgia or Florida could play LSU next Saturday in Atlanta.
"This victory is for everyone in Louisiana who cares about LSU football." Saban said. "This is for everyone who has supported this team."
LSU vs. Arkansas
Nov. 28, 2003 -- Tiger Stadium
- LSU's game captains are LB Adrian Mayes, SS Jack Hunt, OT Rodney Reed, OG Stephen Peterman.
- Arkansas won the toss and deferred to the second half. LSU will receive to begin the game.
- OT Rodney Reed (46 straight), DT Chad Lavalais (33 straight), OG Stephen Peterman (31 straight), OT Andrew Whitworth (25 straight), WR Michael Clayton (25 straight) and DE Marcus Spears (17 straight) all extended their consecutive games started streak.
- Eric Alexander's fumble recovery for a touchdown in the first quarter was LSU's fifth defensive touchdown of the season, marking the first time since the 1991 season LSU has scored more than four defensive touchdowns in one season. The Tigers scored four during the 1991 campaign.
- LSU set the single season scoring mark with its touchdown with 14:09 left in the second quarter, scoring its 382nd point of the season. The previous record of 375 points was set by the 1977 team. LSU finished the game with 420 points this season.
- LSU set the single season touchdown scoring mark with its second touchdown of the second quarter with 6:35 left on a pass from Matt Mauck to Skyler Green. It was the 52nd touchdown of the season, breaking the previous record of 51 set by the 1977 team. LSU finished the game with 58 touchdowns this season.
- Today's attendance of 92,213 is the second largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history. The record of 92,251 was set at the LSU vs. Georgia on Sept. 20, 2003.
- OT Nate Livings started this afternoon for the first time since getting injured against South Carolina on Oct. 18. It was also his first game action since suffering the knee injury in the game in Columbia.
- LB Eric Alexander recovered a fumble and out ran the Arkansas offense 25 yards for a touchdown with 5:30 left in the first quarter. It was his second fumble recovery of his career and second of the season. It was the senior's first touchdown of his career. Marcus Spears forced the fumble, the second of the junior's season.
- WR Michael Clayton's 10-yard reception in the second quarter extended his consecutive games with a reception streak to 38 games, every game of his career.
- Clayton's 10-yard touchdown reception with 14:09 left in the second quarter gave the junior WR the career record for touchdown catches with 20. He tied the record with Wendell Davis last week with a touchdown at Ole Miss.
- DT Chad Lavalais recorded a tackle midway through the first quarter to extend his streak of recording at least one tackle in each of the last 41 games.
- QB Matt Mauck's four touchdown passes moved the junior into third place for career touchdowns thrown at LSU with 36. Mauck tossed a 10-yard TD pass to Michael Clayton, a 2-yarder to Skyler Green and a 22-yarder to Devery Henderson in the second quarter, and a 37-yarder to David Jones in the third quarter. For Mauck, it is his third-four TD game his career. He also tossed four TDs against Western Illinois and Louisiana Tech this season.
- PK Chris Jackson's 47-yard FG with 1:42 left in the second quarter was the freshman's career long. He had previously kicked a 45-yarder last week against Ole Miss.
- CB Corey Webster intercepted two passes, one late in the second quarter for the 12th of his career and one late in the third quarter for the 13th of his career, moving the junior into second place on LSU's career list. The two were also Webster's fifth and sixth of the season, moving him into a tie for sixth on LSU's single-season interceptions list.
- WR Devery Henderson's 22-yard touchdown reception with 50.6 left in the second quarter gave the senior his 19th touchdown of his career, moving him into a tie for second place on LSU's career list. He is now one behind teammate Michael Clayton who caught him record breaking 20th earlier in the game. Henderson's touchdown also moved him into a tie for LSU's single-season record with his 11th receiving touchdown of the season.
- TE David Jones 37-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter was the first of his career.
LSU vs. Arkansas
November 28, 2003
LSU HEAD COACH NICK SABAN
"I'm very proud of our football team for a lot of reasons: We didn't get off to a very good start today. We were anxious and nervous. Lot of mistakes, lot of penalties. I'm proud of the way we competed through it. We really dominated the game after we got going. I'm proud of the way our player played today. I'm also proud of the way we competed all season long. There was a lot of consistency out of a lot of players who had various roles on the team. This is one of the best team chemistry groups I've ever been associated with. We've had great fan support this year. We had a great crowd today and I can't tell you how much we appreciate the administration, our chancellor, Skip, has been supportive in making this a great program. I think people recognize that and that's why we have a chance to have good players who have good character who compete well and I'm very proud of that.
"But this victory is for everyone in Louisiana who cares about LSU football. This is for everyone who has supported this team. This is for the players who I think have done a remarkable job, a lot of work, it started last year in the off-season program and it was the thought of losing in Arkansas the way we did was the first motivator for this team to get going to try to improve and I think it was a good catalyst. This has been a fine team to coach.
LSU OFFENSIVE PLAYER QUOTES
QB Matt Mauck
"I think offensively we just wanted to come out and play better. That's the thing. I think (last week) we really came out flat, but give credit to Ole Miss. They just have a really great team, but I just don't think we played up to our capabilities in that game. We came out today and did a great job.
"I think it's just execution. We have the talent, we've got the guys that can do it. It's just executing the plays.
On the score right before the half
"I think that was huge. Just to take the momentum out of them. We knew they would be able to get the ball back. It was really big getting that score right before the half."
OT Rodney Reed
"First of all, as a senior, it's really important for us to go out as winners. That was the main thing, with this game being with such high stakes, being for the SEC West Championship. It was just a great win, a total team effort, probably the best total team effort that we've had all year as far as defense, offense and special teams. Everybody played great.
On the difference from the last game against Ole Miss
"I think we were able to run the ball a little more effectively early in downs and it opened up the pass and we were consistently able to run our offense. Anytime you can do that as an offense it really opens up a lot of things for you."
WR Michael Clayton
On going back to the SEC Championship game
"It's great -- it's a great feeling. We set out to get in it at the beginning of the season and we finally accomplished that. We've got one more game to make it a dream come true. I feel like we've got what it takes to win an SEC Championship, because I've won one before and it was one of the best moments of my life. That's why we go out and play hard. That's why you've got the old guys trying to get back."
LSU DEFENSIVE PLAYER QUOTES
CB Corey Webster
On the play of the defense
"We got off to a slow start. I don't if we took them for granted or took them lightly, but once we got it into the second quarter we kept on going forward with it and putting the pressure on them. I guess we started playing with a little more emotion in the second quarter, you know. We kind of owed these guys back, and we wanted to show what we're capable of doing by dominating for sixty minutes."
On the show start of the defense
"I guess everybody was just a little tight for the game, and we probably got a little overexcited and worked ourselves out a little before we got out there. It just took some time for us to settle down and get into our kind of game that we normally play."
DE Marcus Spears
"The defense came out really slow, but we just didn't get disappointed. We knew that we were making mistakes, and it was leading to them making some big plays. We just came out and made it right."
On making big plays himself
"I was just playing football and really running to the football. Luckily, I forced one fumble on them and sacked him (Arkansas QB Matt Jones) again. I think those were some big plays in the game. But, I think it had a lot to do with the coverage with those guys back there holding the receivers off."
ARKANSAS HEAD COACH HOUSTON NUTT
"We ran into a very, very good team today. We started of so good, and when you play great football teams, number three ranked teams in the country, you can't give gifts. We were a gift giver today. A gift giver in a big way, you give up twenty-one points or spot them that many, boy that hurts. You have got to be real, real stingy with the football, take care of it.
"The second quarter was the key, there at the end. Things were going good in the first quarter; we jumped out on them early. It was a good start. Boy I'll tell you that second quarter really, really hurt. That was hard to overcome especially a team that is that good.
"There is no way I can be disappointed in this group. Naturally it is disappointing in the locker room. This team fought real hard all year long, through some times when people got hurt, fought through some injuries. I am real proud of this team. I just want to win one more game."
On the turning point of the game...
"There are a couple of things, I don't think it is just one, there are two or three things that opened up the flood gates. We give them seven pints right off of the bat. We have a good rhythm. I though we were one of the better teams to run the ball against that type of defense. As good as they are we still had some running lanes in there, but we ran into each other and got confused and didn't hear the play totally. We run into Matt. They pick up the ball and it's an easy score, a quick seven. It was a combination, it wasn't just one play it was about three plays that I remember."
ARKANSAS PLAYER QUOTES
FS TONY BUA
"In the beginning I thought we came out and we were taking their punches. LSU is a great football team and we knew we were going to have to do it for 60 minutes. You can't spot a team like LSU 21 points with the defense they have and expect to come out with a victory. They have a great football team and they have a great coach and they have a lot of speed on their team and they have a lot of weapons that they can use whenever they want to. Today they pretty much relied on the running game a lot and that is just a credit to them and a credit to their coaching staff."
"There were so many bad plays on our part that I could not really tell you a turning point in the game. I maybe have to go with the blocked punt that they had. We felt like we could keep playing after they scored on defense when our guys ran into each other. We really still felt like we were in the ballgame when they had that blocked punt. We have the capability to sometimes just get on a roll and keep going but with their defense it is tough. When they got that interception right there before the half and then took it in and scored, that was pretty much the thorn in our back. We are not built too come back from big deficits. We did do that earlier this year but our team is more about ball control. I think right then it was just starting to sink in and we were just hoping to get a play on defense and get the ball back to our offense and try to get back into the ballgame."
RB CEDRIC COBBS
"I had the offensive line behind my back and I guess I was just strong enough to take them physically. LSU is a very fast team and they all flow to the ball. I am not really sure how they compare to other defenses because we played a lot of good defenses. Everyone needs to be on the same page in defense so you really can't distinguish who was the best defense that we played against all year but LSU definitely has a good defense."
What did you think of the LSU rush defense?
"I just wanted to come out here and run as hard as I could. We knew that we could play against them."
The 60 yard run you had looked like something on a highlight reel?
"I feel that I am a good back, and I feel like I can make it to the next level. Maybe it was, but my main focus was to do what I did. The line was confident in blocking. We are the number one rushing offense in the SEC. We knew that we could run on them, and it wouldn't really be a problem."
What happened on the fumble in the first quarter?
"It was wrong on both of our parts. We should have had more communication going. That mistake cost us seven points. It also seemed like LSU got a little bit of momentum going after that mistake. We just made to many mistakes. A good team like LSU we have to be mistake free. I think it was a lack of focus. We just have to put this game behind us and look forward to the next game."
QB Matt Jones
Did you think you caught LSU off guard a little with that rushing touchdown?
"Cedric (Cobbs) is real good, but I don't know if you can catch them off guard. He ran the ball extremely well."
What did you feel was the turning point of the game?
"Well, we had the fumble, and then I through an interception at the end of the half."
Do you feel the crowd was a factor in the game?
"From last year playing in the Georgia Dome, it's is about the same as that. They were pretty loud, but I don't know if they were that much of a factor."