LSU scored 22 points in the fourth quarter to finally put the game away, with the final seven coming on Ali Highsmith’s 22-yard fumble return off a sack of backup quarterback Chris Nickson. The play was appropriate on several fronts, as it represented LSU’s relentless pressure of Vanderbilt’s quarterbacks and how fast and talented the defenders in purple and gold were all night long.
“When you can’t get anything going offensively, it is tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, who still stands two wins away from making the Dores bowl eligible. “Things got away from us at the end. A close game turned into a laugher.”
The scoreboard read LSU 12, Vanderbilt 6 at the end of the third quarter, but it took a series of Tigers miscues to have the Dores within six points. LSU missed two field goals, turned the ball over four times, dropped a sure touchdown pass and had seven penalties in the first three quarters. So how were the Tigers still in the lead? By dominating a Vanderbilt offense that entered the game ranked No. 2 in the SEC.
“Our defense played extremely well from start to finish,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “That is the kind of defense we need to have.”
Vanderbilt gained a paltry 138 yards for the game, with 40 of them coming on the game’s final play via a Cassen Jackson-Garrison run. Vanderbilt was sacked six times, turned the ball over three times, gave up a safety and the aforementioned fumble return for a touchdown.
The deepest penetration for the Dores? The LSU 19-yard line. And that drive started on the LSU 20.
Jay Cutler played his worst game of the season, completing 11 of 32 passes for 113 yards with two interceptions. He was hurried and knocked down time after time, and even when he did have time, he missed receivers and simply could not sustain a drive all night.
“Every time he got hit, he was looking frustrated and fussing at folks, so we knew we were getting in his head,” said LSU linebacker Ali Highsmith.
Vanderbilt’s running attack was non-existent, with Jackson-Garrison and Jeff Jennings combining for 13 carries and 15 yards before Garrison’s game-ending 40-yard run.
“I don’t care how good your passer is, you have to be able to run the football,” Johnson said. “We were not able to do that today and that allowed them to run the pressures.”
Defensively, Vanderbilt hung in there as it has all year. It gave up yards (479), but not many points (25). The Commodores had one interception (Reshard Langford) and three fumble recoveries, including one by Ralph McKenzie after a corner blitz from Andrew Pace early in the third quarter. Vanderbilt had the ball on the LSU 36 trailing 9-3, but had to settle for a 48-yard Bryant Hanhfeldt field goal.
Vanderbilt then held LSU and had the ball trailing 9-6. Cutler threw his second interception five plays later, setting up another LSU field goal.
In the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt’s defense simply wore down and gave up two touchdowns before the offense gave up one on its own.
“Defense played awesome,” Cutler said. “The first three quarters, we didn’t help them at all. They carried us the whole game. It is unfortunate we couldn’t do anything with the turnovers.”
Vanderbilt must now regroup after a sobering game against one of the SEC’s elite. Three more remain, with the first coming next week in the form of No. 4 Georgia.
“I think (confidence) is going to be a big factor for us for the rest of the year,” Johnson said. “If you look at the first three quarters, especially how we played on defense, we have some things to build on, but we are going to have to get to work offensively to get their confidence back.”
Bill Trocchi is the interactive editor for Athlon Sports.