LSU remained unbeaten with a 16-14 victory Saturday after a Volunteers penalty for too many players on the field rescued the Tigers from a botched play as time ran out. Stevan Ridley then bulled his way into the end zone from a yard out, and fans who only moments earlier had begun to file out of Tiger Stadium in disgust were suddenly jumping for joy in the aisles.
"It went from a cry, to a frown, to a smile, to a realization of how you really won the game," said linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, adding that he'd called a players-only meeting for Sunday.
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LSU (5-0, 3-0 SEC) was confused on third-and-goal from the 1 and allowed the clock to run nearly to zero before a mishandled snap seemingly ended the game and sent Tennessee players streaming onto the field in jubilation.
The celebration was halted when officials ruled the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2) had 13 defensive players on the field when the ball was snapped.
Suddenly, LSU players were fetching helmets they'd thrown on the ground in frustration. Handshakes between opponents were cut short. LSU coach Les Miles had already tossed his headset aside, cutting him off from communication with offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, while he sought out an official on the field to see what the flag was for.
"I had to call a play because I had nobody to talk to," Miles said.
He called the right play in the end, but said that did not absolve the coaching staff or Tigers players from a mistake-filled performance that came within a whisker of costing them their first loss.
"I don't know that we could play any sloppier. I don't know that we could have planned it any more poorly," Miles said. "We're a very talented team. I don't think we played near to our capacity. The series of downs on the back end of that game was embarrassing to me."
On the other sideline, Derek Dooley wondered whether his team was somehow cheated out of its rightful opportunity to substitute defensive players in response to LSU's numerous personnel changes when officials threw the flag that extended the game.
"Things happened fast and guys didn't run off the field. The ball was snapped pretty quickly, and so we lose the game," Dooley said. "The rule is, when they run guys out on the field, we have to have adequate time to run guys off."
Dooley said an appeal would probably be futile and that his team would have to find a way to grow from the experience.
"Sometimes you do everything right and things don't go your way. All you can do is move on," Dooley said. "We have to look ahead because we have another tough one [at Georgia] next week. It is a hard one. I have never hurt like this before."
Outside the LSU locker room, Ridley had ice wrapped on his left arm, a result of his bruising 123 yards rushing and second-effort TD.
"That was one of the craziest games I've ever been a part of," he said. "That's a win I'll never forget."
Quarterback Jordan Jefferson had an 83-yard TD run on LSU's first offensive play, but his game went downhill after that.
He finished 3 of 10 for 30 yards and two interceptions and came up just short when he kept the ball on an option on second-and-goal from the 1. There were 28 seconds still remaining, but suddenly LSU's offense appeared to have no idea what to do. With the Tiger Stadium crowd screaming frantically for LSU to run a play, Jefferson wandered about before finally hustling to the line of scrimmage in the shotgun formation.
Seeing the final seconds melting off the clock, T-Bob Hebert snapped the ball, saying he did not want a repeat of last-second blunders that cost LSU in an infamous loss at Mississippi last season. Jefferson was unable to handle the snap and dived on the ball as Tennessee players piled on him and fans groaned at what had to look to them like a bad case of deja vu.
Turns out it was a much happier ending for LSU, salvaging a promising performance by backup quarterback Jarrett Lee, who'd led most of the 16-play, 69-yard final drive.
With LSU averaging only 110 yards passing coming in, Miles decided on a two-quarterback system with Lee -- who hadn't played much since his freshman year in 2008 -- getting close to half the snaps.
Lee finished 16 of 23 for 185 yards. He threw one interception, but also completed critical passes to Terrence Toliver on third-and-13 and later on fourth-and-14 to keep the last drive alive.
"Those are the types of plays that you hope to have the opportunity to make," Lee said. "All the credit goes to our playmakers for being able to make those big plays when they were needed the most. I know I have been looking forward to that type of opportunity to get into the game and make some big plays for a long time."
Despite being a two-touchdown underdog, Tennessee kept it tight the whole way. Tauren Poole's 1-yard dive over the pile helped the Vols to a 7-7 halftime tie. Matt Simms' 3-yard score on a quarterback keeper put the Vols in the lead with 11:34 left in the fourth quarter.
LSU outgained Tennessee 434 yards to 217, but the Tigers turned the ball over four times on three interceptions and a fumble.
Despite taking a beating from an LSU defense that racked up five sacks, Simms was 12 of 23 for 121 yards, including a 37-yard completion to Justin Hunter on the Vols' last scoring drive. It was oh-so-nearly enough.
"We let one slip away right there," Simms said. "We had a chance to beat a really good football team in their house and they know that. They know we beat them at every phase of the game. Our goal for the rest of the year is to show everyone that we are a contender in this conference."