BATON ROUGE, La. -- On a cool November day, LSU trailed and needed a pick-me-up when its sophomore punt returner fielded a kick, weaved through the defense, and scored a momentum-shifting touchdown to the delight of a nervous Tiger Stadium crowd.
“That may be the biggest momentum changer I saw,” LSU coach Les Miles said later, after his Tigers pulled away to win.
Question is, what game was he talking about? Was it last year when the Tigers used a Tyrann Mathieu touchdown to propel a comeback against Arkansas?
Actually, it was Saturday when Odell Beckham Jr. returned an Ole Miss punt 89 yards for a touchdown, tying the score in the fourth quarter in what was eventually a 41-35 LSU win over Ole Miss.
“If there was one game ball to be given in this evening, it is given to Odell Beckham,” Miles said.
Remember all that talk about missing Mathieu’s big play ability? When Beckham took it the distance for his second punt return for touchdown of the season, he equaled the number of punts the Honey Badger took to the house a season ago.
Some might think they remember more from Mathieu, the punt returner, but truth be told, he was pretty quiet on punts until the season finale, when he ran one back against Arkansas. He added another against Georgia in the SEC championship game a week later.
Maybe it’s a November thing with LSU.
Or a Mississippi thing. Beckham’s 89-yard touchown was eerily reminiscent of Billy Cannon’s famous 1959 Halloween touchdown return against Ole Miss. It was the same distance, into the same corner of the same end zone in Tiger Stadium.
There was also 2009, when a 93-yard Chad Jones punt return for a touchdown at Mississippi State came 50 years after Cannon’s touchdown.
Like the Cannon and Jones touchdowns, Beckham’s score was a huge play in the game for his team.
LSU trailed 35-28 when he fielded the punt, started left, shifted to his right, broke a tackle and darted into the right corner of Tiger Stadium’s north end zone.
“On the punt return, everyone had their block, everyone had their man and everyone covered their assignments,” Beckham said. “I saw a crease and I just hit it. I ended up getting to a wall, but then I saw Jarvis [Landry] reel me into motion.”
Beckham has been capable of making this kind of play on special teams all season. He took one to the house in the season opener against North Texas and had another called back by penalty. Since then, he’s had some frustratingly close calls, but wasn’t quite able to break one until Saturday.
As a receiver, he had his struggles early in the season, particularly with dropped passes, but he still leads the team in receiving yards (561) and yards per catch (15.6).
“He’s a crafty guy,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “He is very agile, like a cat.”
He gives the Tigers one element that has largely been missing from this year’s team after being a hallmark of last year’s team: the ability to generate points off defense and special teams.
Not that the Tigers are bad at it. It’s just that they were so good at it last year.
Beckham’s score was the fifth by the Tigers' defense and special teams this year. Along with his two punt returns, LSU also has interception touchdown returns by Craig Loston, Lavar Edwards and Ronald Martin.
A season ago, LSU had nine returns for touchdowns in 14 games, a higher pace than this season. The difference? Morris Claiborne returned a kickoff for a touchdown last year, something that hasn’t happened this year, and LSU returned three fumbles for scores, two by Mathieu.
Call Mathieu a unique, ball-hawking talent. Or call the 2011 season one in which LSU caught lightning in a bottle with its penchant for changing games with touchdowns from its defense and special teams.
But one can’t say the ability to score those game-changing touchdowns has left the team with Mathieu’s departure. Beckham proved LSU is still capable of making those plays.
“It was an amazing experience,” Beckham said, “and it definitely changed the momentum of the game.”