BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — It was all falling into place for Alabama, at least until the Crimson Tide fell flat on the bayou.
Alabama arrived in Baton Rouge this past weekend still in the hunt to defend its national title. If the Tide could beat LSU on the road, then win at home against Mississippi State and Auburn, they would play in the Southeastern Conference championship game. If they could win in Atlanta, a berth in the BCS title game might have awaited.
Few doubted Alabama could do it. LSU was even a 6-point underdog in Tiger Stadium.
All the talk unsettled Alabama coach Nick Saban, who worried that preoccupation with the SEC and BCS standings would distract players from focusing on the fundamentals.
Turns out he was right to worry. As darkness descended on Death Valley on Saturday night, the Tigers started stringing together big plays — with a little of coach Les Miles’ trademark trickery — and pulled out an emotional 24-21 win.
“I’ve always talked about playing to a standard. It’s a matter of being able to answer the question, ‘Did I play as well as I can play, am I as good a player as I can be, am I the best competitor I can be, did I execute my job with the discipline that it takes to play winning football? Those are the things we need to improve on,” Saban said afterward.
“It’s up to every player to make the commitment to do that.”
Miles, by contrast, said he was proud of how his players responded not only to a season-changing loss at Auburn two weeks ago, but also to hearing prognosticators dismiss one-loss LSU as a legitimate contender while including one-loss Alabama in every national title discussion.
“For two weeks, all they did was talk about other teams … and it insulted us,” Miles said. “It insulted the hard effort and work and the abilities that our football team has and it allowed us to (find) a reason, a greatest reason, to play our best. And that’s what we did.
“To think that anybody would minimize this football team in its own stadium? It’s a mistake,” Miles said. “Oh my gosh. Can you imagine being underdogs, LSU being underdogs, in Tiger Stadium? It’s not possible.”
The new reality is that LSU (8-1, 5-1) is up to No. 5 in the rankings, while Alabama (7-2, 4-2) has slid down to 11th.
LSU hardly seemed shocked by that development.
Despite giving up 440 yards rushing at Auburn — half of that on runs by quarterback Cam Newton — the Tigers entered the game with one of the SEC’s top defenses. The speedy, hard-hitting unit lived up to its billing against the Tide’s talented running back duo of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
Slammed down hard by Patrick Peterson on a short touchdown catch, Richardson got up with a sore knee and managed only 28 yards on six carries. Ingram rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown, but as a team the Tide rushed for 102 yards, 85 below its average coming in.
“They did a great job at just flying around and getting to the ball,” Ingram said. “We didn’t execute and all we can do is blame ourselves.”
LSU gained 225 yards on the ground, highlighted by tight end DeAngelo Peterson’s 23-yard carry on a fourth-down reverse. Stevan Ridley led LSU with 88 yards rushing and a TD, Russell Shepard added 47 yards, and in a less-consequential moment of trickery by Miles, Josh Jasper added 29 yards on a fake punt.
While Alabama’s Greg McElroy passed for 223 yards, LSU quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee combined for 208, including a 75-yard score from Jefferson to Rueben Randle.
“I have never played in a game that was so intense and so emotional,” Jefferson said.
Alabama wound up being outgained by LSU 433 yards to 325. Meanwhile, McElroy was intercepted on a tipped pass and fumbled on a sack, the second turnover setting up LSU’s crucial last field goal. The Tigers did not turn the ball over once.
LSU is now second behind Auburn in the SEC West. If LSU wins out and Auburn loses to Georgia next week and Alabama in the Iron Bowl, LSU would play in the league title game with only one loss — and emerge as the SEC’s best candidate to play in its fifth straight BCS title game.
Alabama remains in contention for the SEC championship if it wins out, but needs Auburn to lose to Georgia next week and LSU to lose another league game.
“We still have a lot to play for,” Ingram said. “We’re not going to sit down and lose the rest of our games. We still have a lot of pride, and we have great players. We can still win 10 games and go to a New Year’s bowl game.”