BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Tyrann Mathieu channeled his best Billy Cannon and No. 1 LSU was on its way to another run-away victory in the biggest game at Tiger Stadium in half a century.
Mathieu returned a punt 92 yards for a score and the Tigers punished third-ranked Arkansas with 286 yards rushing, wiping out a 14-point deficit with a 41-17 win Friday that secured a spot in the SEC championship.
Kenny Hilliard, Spencer Ware and Jordan Jefferson all scored on the ground for LSU (12-0, 8-0 SEC), which is 12-0 for the first time and will play No. 13 Georgia next weekend in Atlanta.
A win over the Bulldogs would assure the Tigers their third trip to the BCS title game in nine seasons. Though at this point, LSU might be able to get there even if it loses.
Arkansas took a surprising 14-0 lead on Tyler Wilson’s TD pass to Jarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith’s 47-yard fumble return, but LSU stormed back by scoring 41 of the next 44 points in the game.
The rivalry game known as the battle for “The Boot,” a trophy in the shape of Arkansas and Louisiana, marked the first time two teams ranked in the top three had met in Death Valley since 1959, when Cannon’s 89-yard punt return lifted No. 1 LSU to a 7-3 win over No. 3 Mississippi.
Cannon also made a game-sealing tackle on defense late in that game. Mathieu, who was playing safety instead of cornerback much of the game because of Eric Reid’s injury the previous week, had defensive highlights of his own, forcing two turnovers with strips, one of which he recovered.
He now has six forced fumbles this season. His fifth was a strip of running back Dennis Johnson in LSU territory late in the first half. That set up a touchdown drive that put the Tigers ahead to stay.
LSU trailed 14-7 when Mathieu fielded Dylan Breeding’s end-over-end kick at his own 8, started left, made a hard cut straight up field, then angled left again to break into the clear.
It was Mathieu’s third touchdown of the season, his second on special teams, the other coming on a fumble return.
LSU’s defense sacked Wilson five times (twice by Barkevious Mingo) and picked him off once on Morris Claiborne’s team-leading fifth interception of the season.
Two plays later, Jefferson ran 48 yards for his score on a quarterback draw that was wide open, making it 38-17.
Wilson completed 14 of 22 passes for 207 yards, with 60 yards on a short pass that Cobi Hamilton turned into a long gain. The play put Arkansas in position to tie the game at 21, but LSU’s defense forced a field goal that made it 21-17, and the Razorbacks never got closer than that again.
Jefferson was 18 of 29 for 208 yards and one touchdown, a 9-yard pass to Russell Shepard that gave LSU the lead for good at with 59 seconds left in the first half. His first interception of the season kept Arkansas in the game in the third quarter, but otherwise he was excellent.
Hilliard finished with a career-high 102 yards rushing on 19 carries, while Michael Ford rushed 11 times for 96 yards.
Hilliard’s touchdown came on a tackle-breaking 6-yard run. Ware scored on a similar carry from 7 yards out.
Arkansas has had the better of its end-of-season rivalry with LSU in recent years, having won three of the previous four meetings, including a 2007 triple-overtime upset in Tiger Stadium when LSU was No. 1.
Only a series of unlikely losses by other teams allowed the Tigers to sneak into the BCS title game that season and win their last national title by beating Ohio State.
This the time the Hogs were nearly two-touchdown underdogs, but had pledged to play passionately in memory of late teammate Garrett Uekman, who’d died last Sunday. Coaches wore black ribbons on white shirts, and tight end Austin Tate changed his jersey number from 87 to Uekman’s 88.
Hardly intimidated by a raucous Death Valley crowd, Arkansas built a 14-0 lead that was by far LSU’s largest deficit of the season.
It looked at that point that LSU, which had not been down by more than 3 all season, was going to face its toughest test yet.
Instead the Tigers made it look easy, scoring three straight TDs before the half ended and pulling away in the second