The date: November 25, 2011
The matchup: No. 3 Arkansas (10-1) at No. 1 LSU (11-0)
The stakes: Winner takes the SEC West. Maybe.
The back story: We almost forget this five years later, but Arkansas was this close to potentially butting its way to the front of the line in the SEC West in 2011. Following Oklahoma State’s upset loss to Iowa State, here were the top three in the BCS standings heading into Thanksgiving weekend.
1. LSU (11-0)
2. Alabama (10-1)
3. Arkansas (10-1)
LSU had already taken down six ranked opponents and two top-five opponents (including Alabama) before Arkansas visited Baton Rouge. Arkansas, meanwhile, had beaten three top-15 teams while falling only to Alabama.
If LSU were to beat Arkansas (and then also Georgia in the SEC title game), it would all but clinch a BCS title game rematch with Alabama. If Arkansas beat LSU, however, things would get weird. If I recall correctly, the SEC had put together a hybrid tie-breaker for the sort of three-way 7-1 tie we would have seen here. BCS standings would break the tie unless the top two teams were within five spots of each other, in which case head-to-head between those teams would do it. So basically, the Hogs beat LSU, which results in Bama and Arkansas being 1-2 in some order ... and even if Arkansas is No. 1, Bama gets into the title game because of H2H. And then maybe Arkansas gets into the BCS title game at No. 2 anyway?
Nobody overthinks to their own detriment like power conferences. But I digress.
No matter what, this was an enormous football game. And Arkansas came firing out of the gates.
The game: From LSUsports.net:
BATON ROUGE -- After facing its largest deficit of the season, No. 1 LSU shrugged its shoulders then shredded No. 3 Arkansas on Friday at Tiger Stadium, 41-17.
Undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1958 (10-0), the Tigers improved to 12-0, won the brutal Southeastern Conference Western Division at 8-0 and will face Georgia (9-2, 7-1 SEC) in the SEC Championship game on Saturday, Dec. 3, in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. CT on CBS.
It was the largest margin over a top-5 team in school history, and the largest victory over Arkansas since 2004 (43-14). LSU extended the nation's longest winning streak to 13, including victories over eight ranked opponents.
All of the Tigers 2011 accomplishments looked to be in doubt when Arkansas went up 14-0 with 12:11 left in the first half. Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith picked up a fumble by LSU running back Michael Ford and returned 47 yards for a touchdown that quieted the second-largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history (93,108).
The Tigers bounced back in a big way, scoring 21 points in a span of 4:16 including a 6-yard touchdown run by running back Kenny Hilliard, a 92-yard punt return by Tyrann Mathieu that tied the game, and a 9-yard touchdown catch by Russell Shepard from quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
Arkansas (10-2, 6-2 SEC) was stunned and never recovered. After giving up the lead late in the second quarter, the Razorbacks managed only three points and 111 yards for the rest of the contest.
The full game:
Alonzo Highsmith’s fumble return touchdown was a stunning moment — you’ll almost never hear Death Valley that quiet, at least on TV — and forced everyone, including LSU, to face the idea of the Hogs winning this enormous football game. But then the LSU ground game and the most ridiculous secondary of the 21st century struck.
One of my favorite passages in 50 Best* is just a 300-word list of incredible plays made by the LSU secondary in 2011. The Tigers took one one of the most difficult schedules in the sport’s history — after Arkansas came No. 12 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama on neutral fields, making it nine ranked opponents and four top-five opponents in 14 games — and still only allowed 11.3 points per game. They scored six defensive touchdowns and three special teams scores, which means that LSU’s defense and special teams units combined to stay within a touchdown of opponents (4.5 points per game) by themselves. Absurd. And most of that came from the DBs.
It was no different in this one. Tyrann Mathieu lit Death Valley aflame with a 92-yard punt return, and any hope Arkansas had, down 31-17 early in the fourth quarter, was extinguished when Morris Claiborne picked off Tyler Wilson at midfield. Jordan Jefferson raced 48 yards to put the game away two plays later. And for good measure, Mathieu forced and recovered a fumble a few minutes after that.
The box score: You can find it here.
We all know how this story ended. In the BCS title game, Alabama didn’t allow LSU’s offense past midfield until late in the game (and then pushed the Tigers right back over onto their half of the field), and the Tide cruised, 21-0. As I put it in 50 Best*, “ A bad ending can completely wreck a great movie. It’s the hardest part of the script to nail.” Still, this was the most relentless, fun-as-hell defense as has graced the field in quite a while.