Tigers rally to claim SEC title

Jonathan Zenon, Ricky Jean=Francois, Tyson Jackson
Jonathan Zenon, Ricky Jean=Francois, Tyson Jackson

LSU's Jonathan Zenon (19) reacts with teammates Ricky Jean-Francois (90) and Tyson Jackson (93) after returning an interception 18-yards for a touchdown in Atlanta on Saturday.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 11:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 11:55 p.m.

ATLANTA — Tennessee had seen this before.

A backup quarterback from LSU once again beat the Vols in the SEC Championship Game. In 2001 it was Matt Mauck coming off the bench to replace Rohan Davey. On Saturday night in the Georgia Dome, it was Ryan Perrilloux from start to finish.

Perrilloux, who hadn't thrown a pass in a game since Nov. 10, replaced starter Matt Flynn and was named the game's Most Valuable Player after completing 20-of-30 passes for 243 yards despite splitting his finger on a helmet in the third quarter in the 21-14 win over the Volunteers.

“I split it real bad but I just kept on pushing,” Perrilloux said. “the adrenaline was definitely flowing. I just did what coach asked me to do.”

Flynn suffered a shoulder injury in LSU's loss to Arkansas last week. He warmed up before the game, but No. 5 LSU (11-2) chose to go with Perrilloux, who has been in and out of trouble during his LSU career.

Still, it was the defense that provided the big plays with the SEC title on the line and put LSU in position to possibly play for a national championship. The win sent LSU home with a spot in the Sugar Bowl, but with losses by Missouri and West Virginia on Saturday night, LSU could jump ahead of Georgia when the final BCS Standing is released tonight.

Jonathan Zenon intercepted an Erik Ainge pass and returned it 18 yards for the winning points in the fourth quarter and Darry Beckwith picked off another Ainge pass deep in LSU territory to preserve the win.

“He made a good play,” Ainge said of Zenon's pick-six. “I shouldn't have thrown the ball out there. I made a bad decision. It's on me. It takes one play to get you beat. The same thing happened at Florida. Just because something should be open doesn't mean it is.”

During his post-game interview, Ainge said several times that he felt responsibility for the loss. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer stepped in to defend his quarterback.

“I don't want to interrupt,” he said. “We play as a team. There's enough blame to go around for the staff and the coaches and the players. I'm not going to sit up here and let him take the blame.”

Ainge drove No. 14 Tennessee (9-4) down the field quickly to start the game and take a 7-0 lead. But Tennessee managed only 36 yards for the rest of the half and LSU kept it close with a pair of Colt David field goals.

Perrilloux then hit Demetrius Byrd with 3:08 gone in the second half to give the Tigers a 13-7 lead. But a pair of Tiger turnovers — both secured by freshman safety Eric Berry — helped Tennessee jump back in front 14-13.

After Zenon's interception for a score, Ainge drove the Vols back down the field before Beckwith's first-down interception.

“Not a lot of teams can call themselves champions,” Beckwith said. “We can call ourselves champions tonight.”

They can also continue to call Les Miles their coach. Miles called a news conference two hours before kickoff to address an ESPN report that he would be the next coach at Michigan, his alma mater.

Instead, Miles said he is staying at LSU. He and LSU administrators hammered out a contract extension and raise earlier in the week.

“We're the champions of the best conference in America,” Miles said. “I'd line this team up against anybody.”

LSU is expected to lose defensive coordinator Bo Pellini, who is reportedly the next head coach at Nebraska. Miles confirmed that if that does happen, one of the coordinators he will look at is Georgia Tech's Jon Tenuta.

For Tennessee, which followed an improbable path to Atlanta and the title game, the loss was the third straight in SEC Championship Games since the Vols won back-to-back titles in 1997 and ’98.

“Yeah, but we've also been here five times,” Fulmer said. “Please print that as well. A whole lot of people would like to be here five times and not very many people have. We played our rears off when we got here. We're looking forward to coming back and winning it.”

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