LSU has an upset of top-ranked Alabama firmly in their grasp, but the Crimson Tide steals a victory in the closing seconds with a comeback for the ages
A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 21-17 win over LSU:
Consider last night in Baton Rouge nothing if not a comeback for the ages. Few times in the modern history of Alabama football has the Tide found a way to win in a key game where the outcome looked so certain and the outlook so dire. The showdown last night in Death Valley now ranks firmly alongside, and perhaps even above, the likes of 1985 Auburn, 1993 Tennessee, and 1998 LSU.
The drive to win it all was an absolute mastery of the two-minute offense, with AJ McCarron and the passing attack finally coming to life after spending the entire night sputtering and impotent. Kevin Norwood, yet again, for the second time in ten months, proved to be the rusty dagger in the heart of the Bayou Bengals, making a great play in traffic to open the drive with an 18-yard gain and then adding two more fine catches on the far sideline on the following two plays, gaining 26 more yards in the process and putting the Tide in position to get the go-ahead touchdown while stopping the clock to preserve time.
From there, with a 2nd and 10 at the LSU 28-yard line with exactly one minute remaining, the game-winning touchdown pass to T.J. Yeldon was simply the perfect playcall given the defensive strategy being employed. LSU came heavy on a seven-man blitz, and the potential for the tailback screen was the Achilles heel, which was the designed call from Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Once the ball was lofted over the rushers and into the arms of Yeldon, who got a relatively clean release out of the backfield, a big play was all but guaranteed, and an LSU defender was going to have to make a great open field play just to stop him short of the end zone. Yeldon, however, made LSU safety Craig Loston miss in the open field, and sprinted into the end zone, all but securing his place in Alabama lore even as an 18-year old true freshman.
Comeback notwithstanding, a big tip of the hat is in order to LSU, who left it all on the field and who, being brutally honest, significantly outplayed Alabama for the majority of the night. Reading the box score, it's almost hard to believe that Alabama could even feasibly find a way to win. LSU outgained Alabama by over 100 yards, controlled time of possession two-to-one, went 10-20 on third downs while holding Alabama to 1-9, decidedly won the turnover battle, and still lost. As an Alabama partisan, you are obviously elated with the end result, but your heart has to go out to LSU for playing so well and losing in the closing seconds in such gut-wrenching fashion.
Highly frustrating game for Alabama throughout the middle portions of the contest. LSU was essentially handing 'Bama the game, and the Tide refused to take it. With a 14-3 lead at the halftime and getting the ball to start the second half, Alabama was in full control and just allowed it to slip away. Once the fourth quarter began, LSU had 'Bama right where they hoped all along: In the final quarter in a tight game with a chance to win. All of the momentum swung in their direction, and they came literally within inches and seconds of taking down the top-ranked Tide.
The T.J. Yeldon fumble was an absolute gamechanger, and that one mistake controlled the course of the remainder of the game. And rubbing salt in the open wound, the blocking was set up perfectly for the true freshman tailback, who likely would have walked into the end zone for a touchdown had he simply secured the handoff (which may have been the problem with the exchange, as he apparently tried to pounce on the opening before securing the football). A touchdown there would have regained the momentum for Alabama, silenced the Tiger Stadium crowd, and given Alabama a 21-10 lead going to the fourth quarter. 'Bama missed the knockout blow on the fumble, and when that ball went on the turf an absolute nailbiter became all but imminent.
The Alabama offense in general had two modes last night, brilliant and baffled, and never did anything between those two polar extremes. When the Alabama was on and effective, a 92-yard touchdown drive resulted, which was followed by two textbook executions of the two minute offense to end the halves, both of which also resulted in touchdowns. All told, 'Bama gained 227 yards on the 22 plays on those three drives, and put three touchdowns on the board. Outside of those three drives, however, it was just an absolute disaster of a performance for the Alabama offense, which produced six (6) three-and-outs, a crucial turnover, and one more semi-successful drive that did not result in any points. On those eight drives, Alabama ran 30 plays and netted only 104 yards and three first downs (one of which came on an LSU penalty). Even Mike Shula was probably cringing at that performance.
The biggest culprit offensively last night was AJ McCarron, oddly enough, who struggled badly all night with accuracy. The running game was surprisingly successful, and the offensive line play was tremendous, particularly the play of tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker, who limited Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo to a combined 3.5 tackles, but McCarron could not convert in the passing game and that crippled the entire offense. He missed a wide open Amari Cooper on what should have been an easy touchdown pass on second drive of the game, and his performance only regressed from there, culminating in only one completion for -1 passing yards in the second half prior to the game-winning touchdown drive. Not having the aforementioned Cooper for much of the night did not help matters, but even so for most of the night that was easily McCarron's worst performance of his Alabama career. Obviously can't complain too much about McCarron because he ultimately delivered in the clutch, but had he played better in the first 58 minutes 'Bama would have never found itself in the position of needing last-second heroics.
Somewhat of a rough night overall defensively, which was heavily tested by what had been a weak and struggling LSU offense. Zach Mettenberger lit up the secondary, and while the 'Bama run defense held as stout as could have been reasonably hoped, the bigger issue was simply that the defense could not get off the field when it counted the most. LSU converted on third down ten times, and that was -- along with the constant three-and-outs from the 'Bama offense -- was the driving force behind the lopsided time of possession. The defense was largely in bend-but-don't-break mode for much of the night.
Again, though, just like the Alabama offense, the 'Bama defense ultimately did just enough to survive. LSU effectively had a chance to seal the victory and take control with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, but the Alabama defensive front held strong on 3rd and 2 and 4th and 1. On the fourth down play, D.J. Pettway played the role of the unsung hero. A back-up defensive end, Pettway is typically used as a situational pass rusher, but he made a great play over the LSU right guard in the goal line defensive front, and stoned the momentum of Spencer Ware on the quarterback sneak. Then again, minutes later, when LSU was facing a 2nd and 7, Jesse Williams and Deion Belue stopped Jeremy Hill for a three-yard loss, forcing a 3rd and 10 instead of a manageable down-and-distance situation, which gave the Alabama offense one last chance. Not a pretty performance on the whole for the defense, but as was the theme of the night, 'Bama barely found a way to survive.
Les Miles was arguably his worst enemy on the night. LSU emptied the playbook, though it was largely unnecessary given that they were legitimately outplaying 'Bama without having any real need to resort to trickeration. Instead, Miles just took on a tremendous amount of unnecessary risk, particularly on special teams, which more often than not blew up in his face. The faked field goal and subsequent onsides kick attempt cost the Bayou Bengals points, field position, and momentum. The Mad Hatter learned the hard way last night that discretion is indeed the better part of valor.
In fairness, though, defensive strategy for Alabama also left much to be desired. 'Bama consistently blitzed six and seven defenders in an attempt to pressure Zach Mettenberger, but it was largely ineffective and in didn't affect the passing game as needed. The blitzes simply didn't arrive in time, which left 'Bama exposed on the back end, and from there Mettenberger picked apart the Alabama secondary with ease, having a career night in the process. Nevertheless, Nick Saban and company refused to change course as the game progressed, and the pass defense proved ineffective all night long.
To that end, Les Miles probably regrets the 3rd and 10 playcall in the closing seconds, just prior to the Drew Alleman missed field goal. Alabama had not stopped Mettenberger all night, and he had completed his previous three passes on that drive, gaining 42 yards in the process. Obviously you can understand and defend the decision -- want to protect the football, avoid the big negative play, ensure some points -- but even so that playcall has to be lingering in the back of his mind this morning, and in hindsight he did Alabama a big favor by running it into the line with Jeremy Hill. Given the strength of the Alabama run defense, that almost guaranteed 'Bama would get one last chance, and if he lets Mettenberger air it out, the odds are good that LSU converts and Alabama never gets the football back.
In other quick hitters: Another big tip of the hat to the LSU faithful; Tiger Stadium more than lived up to its reputation, absolutely electric environment. Adrian Hubbard and Nick Perry had career performances last night, with both racking up double-digit tackles. Marvin Shinn became an every-down player in the absence of Amari Cooper, who was badly limited by the sprained ankle. Jesse Williams played really well at nose guard, and Brandon Ivory was solid as a rotational player. Eddie Lacy was banged up late, but is apparently okay and in any event played a fine game. 'Bama avoided disaster with the muffed punt by Cyrus Jones, but punt returner is still a major concern at this point with ball protection issues. Every one on the Alabama offensive line ought to get a game ball. Damion Square had a strong performance last night and closed out the game with a stop on 3rd and 10, forcing the LSU field goal try, and sacking Zack Mettenberger to end the game. Jeremy Hill has great size and an impressive burst for such a big runner; if he can stay out of trouble, he ought to be a star in time. LSU wide receiver corps finally played up to the potential of their tremendous raw ability. Not sure the missed kick by Drew Alleman had that great of an impact, but it did give 'Bama a bit better field position and save some time on the clock for the final drive. Said it on Friday and I will reiterate in this space: the 7-on-7 apologists loathe it, but Alabama v. LSU is annually the best game in all of college football.
With the win over LSU, Alabama effectively clinches the SEC West and the resulting berth in the SEC Championship Game. Having said that, though, it is Miami, and not Atlanta, which is the ultimate goal for this team, and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game will not be feasible unless 'Bama runs the table. In that regard, two key games remain, and victory will not come easy in either. To that end, while Alabama found a way in the closing seconds last night, the Tide was outplayed for most of the night and must simply rebound with stronger performances this upcoming weekend against Texas A&M, and, likely, against Georgia one month from now in the SEC Championship Game. Savor the victory, but understand that the grind continues in six days with a very impressive Texas A&M team that is nearly as good as the Bayou Bengals, and if Alabama plays next weekend in Tuscaloosa like it did last night in Baton Rouge, it will likely once again need last second heroics to survive to fight another week.