Tigers rally past Tennessee to win SEC title

Published 11:48 pm Saturday, December 1, 2007

ATLANTA (AP) — Now, Les Miles and LSU can go home together, regardless.

Next stop, New Orleans. Only one thing remained uncertain about their future: What game awaited them in the Superdome?

Assured by Miles he would stay as their coach, backup quarterback Ryan Perrilloux and the fifth-ranked Tigers shifted their attention to No. 14 Tennessee. The result was a 21-14 victory Saturday in the Southeastern Conference championship game — and still a slight chance to play for the national title.

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‘‘I’d line up against anybody and look forward to the opportunity,’’ Miles said. ‘‘Anybody that saw this game tonight would certainly understand that this team is arguably the finest team in the country.’’

Jonathan Zenon scored on an 18-yard interception return with 9:54 left to put LSU (11-2) ahead, then Darry Beckwith picked off another pass by Erik Ainge deep in Tigers territory to seal it.

Perrilloux was the MVP of the game, though Ainge certainly played an equally significant role with his ill-timed tosses. The win sent LSU home with a spot in the Sugar Bowl at worst.

At best, the Tigers hoped for losses by No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia later in the day, plus help in the BCS rankings this weekend to play in college football’s championship game, also to be held at the Superdome.

With speculation swirling he would soon leave for Michigan, Miles did everything he could to put aside the distractions. He met with his team earlier in the day and told them he was remaining at LSU.

‘‘It’s a great place. It’s got everything. They said they want me,’’ Miles said.

A day after he said he would talk to Michigan, Miles turned down a chance to go back to the school where he played and coached.

‘‘I certainly love Michigan. I will always be a Michigan man,’’ he said. ‘‘It saddens me at times I can’t be in two places.’’

Miles’ players were glad to keep him in place.

‘‘We know Coach is here with us. We know Coach has been sticking by us,’’ Perrilloux said.

Miles often mouthed the word ‘‘poise’’ to his players during the game. After LSU won its first SEC title since 2003, he let his emotions show as he hugged senior Jacob Hester, who barreled for 120 yards with helmet-hammering runs.

‘‘I’m just really happy for our seniors, our leadership,’’ Miles said.

Miles had to be proud of his defense, too, for the way it stopped the Vols at the end.

Still no word, though, on whether defensive coordinator Bo Pelini will soon leave to become head coach at Nebraska as has been rumored.

‘‘I’m not really talking about that right now,’’ Pelini said.

Ainge played like a composed senior until his final few throws, when he tossed the ball to the wrong team. Zenon stepped in front of a receiver making a square-in and had an easy romp to the end zone.

‘‘I shouldn’t have thrown it,’’ Ainge said.

Said Zenon: ‘‘We had prepared for that situation and we know they would run that play. That’s exactly what they did.’’

Tennessee (9-4) had its five-game win streak stopped. Asked whether he had a bowl preference for his team, coach Phillip Fulmer drew a laugh.

‘‘We’d like to go to the Rose Bowl, how about that?’’ he said.

Instead, the Volunteers might wind up in the Outback Bowl.

The Vols sported all-orange uniforms for the first time since 1999 and led 7-6 at halftime. The game shaded toward the Tigers’ side in the second half, with Perrilloux starring in place of injured Matt Flynn.

Perrilloux did it all for LSU, a week after sitting out a 50-48 triple-overtime loss to Arkansas that cost LSU a No. 1 ranking for the second time this season.

Throwing his first passes in three weeks, he completed 20 of 30 for 243 yards. He opened LSU’s option attack, ran for a 2-point conversion after Zenon’s touchdown and threw a crunching block that drew gasps from fans on both sides when the replay was shown on the video board.

No wonder the Tigers have stuck by the talented sophomore whose career has been beset by off-field issues.

‘‘I thought I played OK,’’ Perrilloux said.

For a while, it looked as if Tennessee safety Eric Berry might be the star of the game. He made a pair of plays in the third quarter that helped Tennessee take a 14-13 lead and preserve it.

Berry recovered a fumble by NCAA sprint star Trindon Holliday that set up Ainge’s 6-yard TD pass to Josh Briscoe for a 14-13 edge and later intercepted Perrilloux’s poor pass. Perrilloux bloodied his finger on the play when he hit a Vols helmet, but stayed in.

The Vols could’ve been ahead by more, but Daniel Lincoln missed field goal tries from 30 and 51 yards.

Down at halftime, LSU came out of the locker room with a new look. The Tigers opened up their playbook and quickly grabbed the lead.

Holliday took off on his first three runs of the game, Early Doucet tried a reverse and Perrilloux threw a 48-yard dart to Brandon LaFell. Perrilloux finished off the lightning strike by slinging a pass through two defenders to Demetrius Byrd for a 27-yard touchdown and 13-7 lead.

At the start, Tennessee broke out a bit of trickery that’s become fashionable in the SEC.

On their first possession, the Vols slipped wide receiver Gerald Jones in as quarterback on a third-and-4. He dashed for 20 yards on just his fourth rushing attempt this season. That led to Ainge’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Chip Brown.

Somehow, Tennessee made its lead stand up until halftime despite being outgained 271 yards to 93.

Colt David kicked a pair of 30-yard field goals the first two times LSU touched the ball. He missed another 30-yard try just before the half.