Best Games of the Les Miles Era #14: LSU 41, Arkansas 17 - 2011

Even the Arkansas defender behind Mathieu is wondering how he just did that. - Chris Graythen

Number 14 of the Best Games of the Les Miles era is Tyrann Mathieu's career highlights condensed into one dazzling game in a matchup of top 3 teams.

It might be hard to follow up Paul's intensely personal debut to this series, but I'll give it a shot.

When you think of dominant LSU games, I can probably predict which ones come to mind in recent Tiger history. Miami 2005, Virginia Tech 2007 or even 2013 Texas A&M are likely at the forefront.

Even from that magnificent 2011 run, the Auburn suspension game, the Brad Wing taunting against Florida or the SEC title with 42 unanswered against Georgia all have their place.

For my money, the Arkansas game was as thorough a dismantling as any of them. The reason? Arkansas was No. 3 in the country and the game was a de-facto play-in for the national championship game. The Hogs also had an elite offense in 2011 and that LSU defense just laughed in their face after a couple early hiccups. And who else was leading the charge but Tyrann Mathieu.

It's easy to forget now, but the Honey Badger momentum had been stunted by November. The Auburn suspension stopped him cold for a bit after a quiet game versus Tennessee. He was mostly a non-factor in the Game of the Century (other than an ugly takedown of Dre Kirkpatrick), had little to do in the Ole Miss romp and produced 0.5 of a tackle for a loss against Western Kentucky. Verne Lundquist even said he'd been "an endangered species for about a month" on the CBS telecast. No one was talking about Mathieu for Heisman on Thanksgiving.

That changed quickly.

In perhaps the biggest game in 50+ years inside Tiger Stadium, Mathieu definitely looked like a kindred spirit to Billy Cannon. The punt return for a touchdown that tied the game in the second quarter didn't have the acrobatics of his returns against Georgia or the panache of his tip drill INT in West Virginia, but it was perhaps the biggest play in a season full of momentum swings for LSU. It was part of his complete dismantling of Arkansas over the span of two minutes.

The fumble he RIPPED out of Dennis Johnson's hands set up the go-ahead touchdown moments later and he forced and recovered another one as LSU poured it on in the second half. This was the game that reminded us a virtuoso was at work. For all the troubles Mathieu had in Baton Rouge and the sour way his career ended in New Orleans, this game is Tyrann's masterwork and I don't even think that's arguable.

True to form for the 2011 squad, Mathieu was just the catalyst. The entire team administered the knockout blow.

Yes, even Jordan Jefferson delivered one of his finest hours, throwing for 208 yards and sealing the Hogs' fate with a 48-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth. LSU averaged 6.2 yards per rush, every rusher sans Michael Ford scored but he had a game-long rush of 49 yards, and Kenny Hilliard ran with grit and efficiency, going over 100 yards on 19 carries as a freshman.

Even the receivers, a bugaboo on an otherwise loaded team that season, came through. With Jefferson on target, Rueben Randle hauled in nine catches for 134 yards, Kadron Boone and Deangelo Peterson grabbed a few catches and Russell Shepard took an inside screen pass in for a touchdown. That offense wasn't an all-time great but it knew how to move downhill when momentum was on its side like no other.

Of course, Mathieu was only part of that defensive onslaught. LSU sacked All-SEC QB Tyler Wilson five times. He was scared for his life, dodging free rushers because of a porous offensive line and the Tigers' relentless front. Mo Claiborne picked him off, Ron Brooks sacked him, Tharold Simon and Craig Loston punished some Arkansas receivers and Michael Brockers and the linebackers completely clogged the middle.

That Arkansas offense averaged 440 yards and 37 points per contest in 2011. On the Hogs final five drives of the game, they managed 90 total yards and a field goal. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, they were stuffed.

That's another underrated component of this game. For once, the Friday-after-Thanksgiving tradition truly had a crowd worthy of the classics LSU and Arkansas have waged. The Hogs actually got to experience the cauldron that Tiger Stadium can be after winning three of the previous four meetings in the series. It wasn't 2012 Alabama or 2007 Florida loud, but - much like that season as a whole - it was more fun than stressful until the final whistle.

Hell, I remember the sheer ecstasy of drunkenly hoisting one of my best friends clear off the ground when Mathieu reached the end zone on the punt return. This weren't your slightly older brother's Les Miles team. No, this team slammed doors shut, ripped off the lock and tossed the key, leaving no doubt on the other sideline.

Making Bobby Petrino mad is just plain fun and that 2011 team knew how to have it in spades. I think that's why LSU fans were so addicted to Mathieu. He made some sloggy offenses and blowouts more thrilling than they should have been for an entire season. We didn't know it at the time, but this closed the curtain on his Tiger Stadium career. What a final act.

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Other entries in the Best Games of the Les Miles Era:

#15) LSU @ Georgia - 2009

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