BATON ROUGE, La. — No one could call this one boring.
That was the knock on the last two meetings between Alabama and LSU, the first being settled solely on the feet of the field-goal kickers and the second, the BCS Championship Game, being another defensive slugfest which put many to sleep before halftime.
Not this one.
Unlike the other two, this year’s matchup was not hyped ad nauseam as the “Game of the Century,” but it could be argued as being the best show of the year in college football. Not only did Alabama and LSU find the respective end zones in Death Valley on Saturday night, the game went down to the wire, a heavyweight slugfest with the combatants swinging away till the final bell.
Alabama won 21-17 after executing a 72-yard drive in 43 seconds, capping it with a 28-yard screen pass from AJ McCarron to T.J. Yeldon for the game-winning touchdown.
This game had everything — fake field goals, blistering defense. There was a late and seemingly unfortunate fumble by Yeldon on the 10-yard line when Alabama appeared ready to regain the lead. There was a critical missed field goal by LSU’s Drew Alleman with 1:34 left in the game.
Then there were the quarterbacks. One in LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, who finally lived up to his potential, and another, Alabama’s McCarron, who came through in the clutch after going 1 for 7 for 0 yards in the second half before the final, game-winning drive.
“We really knew this was going to be a tough game,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. “I don’t think we played our best. LSU played outstanding. There was a stretch in the second half where they converted seven straight third-down-and-5’s-or-longer.
“But we told our players that they would have to overcome a lot of adversity to win a game here. When things went bad and the momentum of the game changed, that’s what we kept talking to them about. They kept their poise, and they kept playing.
“I’ve never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity the way they did.”
It didn’t happen by accident. As if anticipating the troubles that lay ahead, Saban assembled the team earlier in the week for a sneak preview of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” the soon-to-be-released blockbuster on the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
“We showed the players this week the SEAL Team going in to get Bin Laden, and the adaptability they had to have when the helicopter landed on the fence instead of the porch,” Saban said.
Actually one of the Chinook helicopters crash-landed outside Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, but the coach can be forgiven a few historical liberties. That wasn’t his point.
“(The SEALs) had been trained to be adaptable in case something like that happened, so they were still successful,” Saban said. “I think there was a lot of that out there from us (on Saturday).”
Adversity was not something Alabama had faced. Every diehard fan knew the numbers: No. 1 defense in the nation allowing only eight points and 57 rushing yards per game, a quarterback who hadn’t thrown an interception all season and a team that had only trailed one time for 15 seconds all year.
Those stats were thrown out the window early in this one.
Mettenberger found his rhythm early. In the first 10 minutes LSU ran 22 offensive plays to Alabama’s three. When the final numbers were tallied, LSU led in total offensive yards 435-331, and Mettenberger had the best game of his career, going 24 of 35 for 298 yards. The Tigers held the ball 18½ minutes longer than the Tide and converted 10-of-20 third downs, while the Tide were just 1 of 9.
The main number where the Tide came out on top was the final score, the only one that really matters.
No one in the stadium who wasn’t wearing a crimson uniform thought Alabama could rally with 1:34 to go and the Tide trailing 17-14. McCarron still hadn’t thrown an interception, but he hadn’t thrown many completions either. Prior to the final drive he was 10 of 22, nine of those coming in the first half.
Then, on the final drive, the quarterback went to another place.
“AJ was locked in,” Alabama running back Eddie Lacy said of the final 1:34. “He’s always locked in, but it was something different this time. He knew he had to make plays. He came out and made the right reads and the right passes. It’s like he just took over. We knew we couldn’t run the ball, so it was all on his shoulders. And he didn’t pause; he didn’t hesitate. He knew exactly what he had to do and he did it.”
That, too, was not an accident.
“We always sit on Friday night with the quarterbacks and look at the other team’s two-minute (defense),” Saban said, revealing an astonishing coaching detail.
This is a team that hasn’t trailed at the end of a half in two years. And still the coach runs through every opponent’s two-minute defense with his quarterbacks on Friday nights.
The players had to have rolled their eyes at times. They were studying film that they believed they would never use. But when they needed it, they had it.
They knew that LSU had a tendency to blitz inside of two minutes. When the call came in for the screen pass to Yeldon, everyone wearing a headset said, “I hope they come.”
The LSU defense did, indeed, blitz, leaving the freshman Yeldon wide open for a 28-yard scamper and the win. It was McCarron’s longest completion of the night, and the most important of his career.
“That last drive was something I’ll never forget,” Saban said. “There was a lot of tough football played out there. This was a very physical game. Our players are going to be about as sore as they’ve ever been.”
Questions continue to swirl about whether this Alabama team is better than last year’s national champions. It is unanswerable at this point, although the Tide are still undefeated, a feat that last year’s team could not boast.
There is no doubt that they are different. Where last year’s Tide defense stuffed opponents on every down, this year the defense has bended at times, but never fully broken. While other teams will look at this game and take heart that Alabama might not be as invincible as it once appeared, it does appear to be resilient.
Every great team overcomes at least one challenge on the road to a championship.
If the wins keep piling up, this game will become the stuff of legends in the lore of Alabama football.