By RAYMOND PARTSCH III, Journal Sports
BATON ROUGE — The LSU Tigers began the game with a turnover, and fittingly the team ended the contest in the same fashion.
In between those miscues, there were two hours of failed fourth-down conversions, missed tackles, blown assignments and an anemic running game.
The result was one of the most lopsided and “shocking” losses in modern LSU football history, as unbeaten, No. 8 Tennessee dominated No. 25 LSU 40-13.
The 27-point defeat was the largest of Brian Kelly’s lengthy FBS coaching career. It was also the most lopsided home defeat to a non-Alabama team inside Tiger Stadium since suffering a 29-point loss to Florida in 2001.
The two widest losses in Death Valley came courtesy of Alabama in 2020 (55-17) and 2018 (29-0).
“It is shocking that the game went this way,” running back Josh Williams said. “We knew it was going to be a dog fight. We knew it was going to be competitive. It just wasn’t our day at LSU.”
“It is a loss,” LSU safety Greg Brooks Jr. added. “You are always going to be shocked by a loss. We came out flat and everything is on us.”
The game immediately began poorly for the Tigers.
LSU return man Jack Bech fumbled away the opening kickoff. Five plays later, Tennessee scored on a one-yard run by Jabari Small. The Vols running back led all rushers with 127 yards on 22 carries.
After a quick three-and-out by LSU, Tennessee got a long punt return and added to its lead with Chase McGrath making a 35-yard field goal.
“When you fumble the opening kickoff and give an extra possession to a team that plays fast and loves extra possessions, and spot them 10 points on special teams, you put yourself in a huge hole,” LSU’s Kelly said. “That’s what we did.”
LSU (4-2, 2-1 SEC) found its rhythm offensively on its next drive as the Tigers went 73 yards on 11 plays. Facing a fourth-and-four from the Tennessee 14-yard line, Kelly opted to not kick the field goal and went for it.
Jayden Daniels completed a short pass to Kayshon Boutte but the Tiger wide receiver, who slipped on his cut upfield to catch the ball, was a yard short of getting the first down.
“We got behind by 10 and couldn’t match possessions at that time,” Kelly said. “We were within the analytical numbers too, so I was keeping an eye on where we were from that position. Once you get behind against a team like that, you’re listening both to those and your opportunity to score, so I felt like I needed to.”
That wouldn’t be the last time LSU went for it on fourth down.
After Tennessee (5-0, 2-0 SEC) added a 38-yard field goal by McGrath, LSU got some more movement. For the second time, the Tigers opted to go for it on fourth-and-one at their own 46-yard line.
Williams was stuffed for a loss of one. The very next play saw Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker connecting with Jalin Hyatt for a 45-yard touchdown.
“They blitzed the house, and it just wasn’t a play that was positive for us,” Williams said.
LSU appeared to have gained some momentum shortly before halftime.
The Tigers found the end zone before halftime as Daniels led a 12-play, 96-yard drive which was capped by a one-yard touchdown run by Williams.
After Tennessee’s ensuing drive ended with McGrath missing a 50-yard field goal, LSU drove the ball to the Tennessee 45-yard line. LSU opted to go for it on fourth down again, and this time Daniels was sacked.
The Vols defense sacked him five times and the Tigers went 0-for-3 on fourth-down conversions.
“I felt like we had to make something happen,” Kelly said of the fourth-down tries. “It was still a green go scenario when we look at the analytics. I could have taken a conservative look there but I felt like we needed to be aggressive.”
Tennessee added a 32-yard field goal as time expired, and held a 23-7 lead.
The Volunteers opened up the second half with an eight-play, 76-yard drive which was capped with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Hooker to Hyatt. Tennessee’s Heisman Trophy candidate completed 17-of-27 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and added 56 rushing yards.
“They spread their guys out based on their formations and schemes,” LSU defensive back Jarrick Bernard-Converse said. “That’s just who they are.”
After the Volunteers added a five-yard touchdown run by Small in the third quarter, the Tigers scored for the final time in the fourth quarter as Daniels found Boutte for a five-yard touchdown.
Daniels was 32-of-45 for 300 yards and led the team in rushing with 38 yards on 16 carries. The Tigers managed just 55 yards on the ground on 28 carries and Daniels was sacked five times.
“Our details were not very good,” said Kelly, whose team travels to Gainesville next Saturday to take on Florida. “I could stand up here all day — that falls on coaching. That’s on me, and I have to coach better. That’s the group we have, and we got to coach them better.”
“We beat ourselves and allowed them to get points quickly on us,” LSU safety Greg Brooks Jr. said. “That can’t happen as we keep going into SEC play. Tennessee is a great team, but we beat ourselves.”
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