BATON ROUGE, La. — In a joyous, raving, almost delirious rant, Les Miles gushed over his team’s inexorable determination and urged LSU fans to put their arms around his players and “give them a big kiss on the mouth.”
Miles is known to get a little loopy and emotional at times, so his comments hardly seemed out of character after a classic contest with historical rival Ole Miss that even evoked memories of Billy Cannon’s famous Halloween night punt return in 1959.
Jeremy Hill scored his third touchdown with 15 seconds left to lift the Tigers to a 41-35 victory over relentless but mistake-prone Mississippi on Saturday.
“I’m proud of those men,” Miles said of his team. “How easy it could of have been to say it was (Ole Miss’) night. Spectacular group of men. … Wow! What a game!”
The game included seven turnovers, numerous momentum swings and long touchdowns, perhaps none better than Odell Beckham Jr.’s 89-yard punt return for a score that evoked memories of Cannon’s famous return against the same team, along the same sideline, for the same yardage back in 1959.
“That was maybe the biggest momentum changer in the game,” Miles said, adding giddily, “Is it Halloween night?”
Beckham eluded numerous tacklers, slipping one as he traversed the field, then broke away from pursuers down the right sideline toward the north end zone while teammate Jarvis Landry waved him along with windmill motion.
“Everyone had their block, everyone had their man and everyone covered their assignments,” Beckham said. “I saw a crease and I just hit it. … It was an amazing experience and definitely changed the momentum of the game.”
Beckham’s return tied the game at 35, but LSU (9-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) still needed a pair of clutch sacks by Anthony Johnson and Lavar Edwards to drive Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5) out of routine field goal range later in the fourth quarter. Bryson Rose then pushed a 53-yard kick wide right, setting up the winning drive.
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace passed for 310 yards and two TDs and ran for two scores, but also was intercepted three times. His touchdowns went Donte Moncrief, the first for 56 yards and the second for 30. Wallace’s first score came on a 58-yard run.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, maybe not at this level, but this here is one of the most difficult locker rooms to be in this year,” first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. “Our kids just fought for our university and our fans and they should be proud of that. We just can’t seem to get that stop when we have to have one, or that touchdown when we have to have one.”
Zach Mettenberger completed 22 of 37 passes for 282 yards and was intercepted twice. Hill finished with 77 yards rushing, including a 27 yard run for his first TD. Spencer Ware had LSU’s other touchdown on a leap over the pile on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
“I never thought at any point we were going to lose that game,” Mettenberger said. “We had control of the game. We had a couple of turnovers but we had been driving the ball well all night and the passing game was there. We just have to clean up the turnovers and we still won. Hopefully we can go into next week against Arkansas and do the same thing.”
LSU heads into that game still technically alive for an SEC title — if the Tigers beat the Razorbacks, while Texas A&M beats Missouri and Auburn upsets Alabama. That would create a three-way tie in the SEC West that LSU would win.
The Ole Miss turnovers gave LSU multiple opportunities to seize control, but the Tigers had three drives stall inside the Mississippi 10. Two of them ended with field goals and another with Senquez Golson’s interception in the end zone, a play that allowed the Rebels to cling to a 21-20 lead in the third quarter.
“Everything we were doing was working,” Wallace said. “We executed for the most part, but there were still times that we were shooting ourselves in the foot. We have to eliminate that.”
Mississippi then widened its lead to 28-20 on a drive set up by Golson’s second interception. Randall Mackey’s 6-yard scoring run capped it.
LSU rallied to tie it on Hill’s 1-yard touchdown run around the left side and a 2-point conversion on Mettenberger’s pass to Ware, but the Rebels marched right back down the field in 28 seconds to regain the lead, 35-28, on Wallace’s pass to Moncrief along the left sideline.
That, however, would be the final points for a Mississippi team that is one win from bowl eligibility and made it clear early on it was not going to lay down against an LSU team favored by more than two touchdowns.
“We should have had it. We let it slip away,” Mackey said. “We’re just tired of losing. We came ready to play.”
Ole Miss took a 21-17 lead into halftime after Wallace converted a fourth-and-3 with a 20-yard pass to Logan, then hit Logan again for 25 yards before keeping the ball for his second rushing TD of the game from the 1.