By Robbie Neiswanger
By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
BATON ROUGE, La. — Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright stood in the postgame interview room moments after his team’s 41-17 loss to LSU in Tiger Stadium and summed up the Razorbacks’ misfortune this season.
Arkansas, at No. 3, was sitting at its highest spot in the Bowl Championship Series standings. The Razorbacks passed test after test during the second half of the season, vaulting themselves into the national title picture. But when Arkansas looks back on the season, it will be remembered for finishing third in their division behind LSU and Alabama.
“If we were in another conference we probably would be playing for a national championship,” Wright said.
“Unfortunately, we are in the SEC West.”
Arkansas’ BCS title game dreams came to a bitter end in front of a national television audience and 93,108 in Death Valley on Friday. The Razorbacks (10-2, 6-2) jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, but, once again, were eventually overwhelmed by a division foe.
LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu tied the game in the second quarter with an electrifying 92-yard punt return, the Tigers grabbed the lead with another touchdown late in the half after a Dennis Johnson fumble, then LSU took control of the game with a suffocating defense that limited Arkansas to 254 yards and a bruising run game that grinded out 286.
It helped LSU win the SEC West and advance to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game next Saturday.
It also secured LSU’s first undefeated regular season since 1958 and practically assures the Tigers of a spot in the BCS title game at season’s end. LSU’s opponent will likely be Alabama, as long as the Crimson Tide takes care of Auburn today.
Arkansas, meanwhile, will have to settle for the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., or the Cotton Bowl in Dallas when invitations are handed out next week.
“We got beat by a better football team,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “They played better offensively, defensively.”
The 24-point loss was a rough ending to a tough week for the Razorbacks, who played with heavy hearts after tight end Garrett Uekman’s death last Sunday.
Arkansas players remembered their teammate by wearing decals that said “GU” on the back of their helmets and red bracelets on their wrists. Coaches wore black ribbons, too, and tight end Austin Tate wore Uekman’s No. 88 jersey to honor his best friend.
“Well, it was a difficult week,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “I’d be lying if I said it was a regular week. That’s not true at all.”
But Petrino also said Arkansas — which did not speak to the media all week as it coped with the tragedy — did a good job on the practice field preparing for the Tigers. It showed in the early minutes Friday.
The Razorbacks went toe-to-toe with the Tigers, throwing the game’s first two punches when Tyler Wilson capped a long drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jarius Wright. Then, linebacker Alonzo Highsmith plucked a fumble by running back Jacoby Ford — which was forced by safety Tramain Thomas — out of the air and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown.
The defensive touchdown gave Arkansas a stunning 14-0 lead. It was the largest deficit the Tigers — who had surrendered only four touchdowns in their previous seven SEC games — had faced all season.
“We accomplished our goal, which was to come in here and score quickly, start fast,” Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said. “We were ready to play, which was obvious. … But we weren’t able to sustain it.”
The Tigers, who have won two other games against top 10 teams this season, showed why they’re undefeated in roaring back late in the second quarter.
LSU cut the deficit to 14-7 with a 14-play drive, which ended with Kenny Hilliard’s 6-yard touchdown run. Then came the momentum-changing play.
Mathieu fielded a punt from Dylan Breeding and raced 92 yards for a touchdown. He became the second player to return a punt for a touchdown against Arkansas this season, joining Alabama receiver Marquis Maze’s 83-yard TD in September. Arkansas lost both games.
“It was a huge turning point in the game,” Petrino said. “We were trying to get the ball punted to the sideline. He mis-hit it a little bit and put it in the middle of the field. We had guys right there and he made a tremendous run. He made a great cut, made us miss at the point of attack and made a great play.”
But LSU wasn’t done scoring in the first half, taking advantage of a back-breaking fumble by Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson in LSU territory. The Tigers quickly marched downfield and took the lead on Jordan Jefferson’s 9-yard touchdown pass to receiver Russell Shepard with 59 seconds left in the half.
“This football team down 14 points did not flinch,” Miles said. “There was never a question in anyone’s minds on that sideline that we were going to respond.”
Arkansas had a chance to tie the game early in the second half, when it used a 60-yard catch and run by receiver Cobi Hamilton to move deep inside LSU territory. But the drive stalled at the 6-yard line thanks to a bad snap to backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell, who briefly replaced Wilson under center.
The Razorbacks had to settle for a 29-yard field goal by Zach Hocker to close to 21-17. It proved to be Arkansas’ final points of the game.
LSU immediately responded, netting a field goal drive of its own to regain a 7-point lead. Then the Tigers unloaded on Arkansas in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of two turnovers and a tired defense en route to 17 points. A tight game turned into a rout.
“We went out there fighting hard,” Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg said. “I always believe that we can win, but I guess things just didn’t go our way (Friday).”
Wilson was sacked a season-high five times Friday, completing 14 of 22 passes for 207 yards with a touchdown and interception. Arkansas also was limited to 47 rushing yards. The Razorbacks’ 254 yards was its second-lowest total of the season.
LSU, which finished with 494 yards, was led on the ground by Hilliard (102 rushing yards) and Ford (96). Jefferson started sloppy, but finished 18 of 29 for 208 yards with a touchdown and interception, too.
It helped the Tigers beat Arkansas for the first time since 2009, reclaiming the Golden Boot. LSU celebrated the moment at midfield after the game, while the Razorbacks walked back to the locker room.
Arkansas lost for the second time this season, snapping a seven-game win streak. Unfortunately, it came to an SEC-West opponent on the road once again.
“We played a great team and they came out on top. The No. 1 team in the nation,” Wright said.
“Of course we’re upset about the loss because we definitely could’ve finished better.”