"Our players have to be aware that they can take this one way or the other," Saban said. "This one is either going to affect them in a positive way or a negative way with what they do in the future. They can focus on the things they didn't do and take the next challenge and continue to improve and be ready to play next week and prepare and practice next week or they can say, 'We're satisfied for ourselves with what we did.'"
Among the endless flow of praise and compliments that had been pointed to this University of Alabama football team over the course of the season, one kept recurring. "Machine." As in Alabama "plays like a machine," or "is a machine." The mantra of "playing to a standard" was part of that, the standard being an almost non-human perfection of execution, a mistake-free, emotionless win-manufacturing unit. On Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, the machine didn't function quite so well. Alabama was minus-two in turnovers, bereft of forward momentum, a team that looked young and rattled and, well, human. Which is what made the final few minutes, and the improbable win which emerged from Baton Rouge, an instant classic. Certainly, there was good execution -- a final defensive stop that led to a missed LSU field goal, a dramatic two-minute drive. But what made it far more memorable was that Alabama, for the first time all year, felt human. Superman had been punched in the nose by an adversary just as big, just as strong, and it had drawn blood. A machine would have just shut down until the mechanics came to fix it. Alabama did not. "We didn't play our best game," UA coach Nick Saban said. "But I told our guys I have never been prouder of a team."
"I just looked at everybody on the sideline," Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said. "We got down for a minute, but we pulled it together. I told them, 'We do it every Thursday in practice. It doesn't matter how many people are in the stands. The field is still 100 yards long, and we have to go put it in the end zone.'"
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: He certainly didn't have his best game -- until the very end. After completing just 1 of 7 second-half passes before the Tide's final drive against LSU, McCarron stepped up and showed some mettle by hitting four of his final five pass attempts, including a 28-yard screen pass to running back T.J. Yeldon that delivered the 21-17 victory. McCarron stood tall on the biggest drive of his career and kept the Tide on its path to not just the SEC title but the national title.
It's still Alabama's world: The Crimson Tide went right down to the wire with fifth-ranked LSU. Alabama was outplayed for most of the game, but when Alabama needed a game-winning drive, AJ McCarron delievered, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 72 yards and the decisive 28-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Now, the rest of the nation has to continue looking up at the Tide. If LSU had won, the SEC's BCS world might have been turned upside down, but now Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame are all jockeying for position to play Alabama (if the Tide can continue their winning ways). Alabama controls its own destiny to not only on the path to the SEC title game but also the Discover BCS National Championship in Miami.
"They're a good team, don't get me wrong," Logan said. "But to go against a team that everybody is comparing to, you know, an NFL team ... we dominated them from snap to snap. There was just that one play that cost us."
"We knew a game like this was coming somewhere along the way, and we were going to be ready for it," Alabama senior safety Robert Lester said. "We pride ourselves on being ready for any situation, and tonight we created another part of our identity. "We showed the world that we can overcome hard situations."
"It was a surreal feeling watching [Yeldon]," Jones said. "I was looking around for a flag. I didn't want to go crazy before I knew it was for real." Alabama fans are probably still pinching themselves, after watching their team nearly lose for the first time this season. Instead, the Crimson Tide will remain No. 1 in the BCS standings and on track to play for their third BCS national championship in four seasons in Miami on Jan. 7. Jones said the normally stoic Saban was even beside himself after the victory, giving players big bear hugs in the locker room afterward. "I've never seen him so happy," Jones said. "He gave me a big hug. I think it was special for him. It was cool."
Afterward, McCarron's father remembered something he'd told his son at the team hotel before the game. "There's 100,000 people there to party," Tony McCarron said. "Piss 'em off." All those Tigers did look ticked as AJ McCarron ran and jumped the railing to hug his father, mother and stepfather after a drive that, if the rest of the season goes as planned, will go down in Alabama history. As he hugged his family and blinked away tears in his eyes, McCarron knew he had done something amazing. His entire life, he had imagined leading Alabama to a last-minute win in one of the SEC's holy houses. Now, he had done just that. McCarron had gone into the place where opponents' dreams come to die and made his own dream come true.
The Tide sacked LSU's Zach Mettenberger three times. Dee Milliner and Damion Square each had a sack. Hubbard and C.J. Mosley combined on another sack. Alabama had a total of 10 tackles or a loss, with Hubbard leading the way (2.5). On offense, the Tide allowed only one sack, by Sam Montgomery. The Tigers had only two other tackles behind the line.
LSU carried the fight to Alabama in the first quarter but managed only a field goal in the period, taking a 3-0 lead on Alleman's 38-yarder. The Crimson Tide seemed to right the ship in the second quarter. First, it went on its most impressive march of the season, a 92-yard drive capped by a 7-yard Eddie Lacy touchdown run. Alabama then benefited from a questionable decision by LSU coach Les Miles. The Tigers attempted an unlikely 54-yard field goal by Alleman that fell far short and gave UA possession at its 37 with 1:08 left in the first half. UA covered the 63 yards in less than a minute, with McCarron scoring on a 9-yard run to push the lead to 14-3. Even with the lead, Alabama coach Nick Saban cautioned that his team was "not stopping the run well enough," words that proved prophetic in the second half. Instead of fading, LSU came back strong on both sides of the ball, stifling the Crimson Tide offense and showing unexpected offensive spark. With McCarron enduring the worst half of his career, Alabama could not move the ball. His opposite number, Mettenberger, finished 24 of 35 for 298 yards, while McCarron was 14 for 27 for 165 yards. But McCarron got the yards that mattered most.
The narrative of the last two Alabama-LSU match-ups had become powerful stuff, as much a struggle about the different ways that football can be played as it was a debate over the merits of the teams playing the games. These were the kind of games that caused fans in other parts of the country to grow drowsy, but the very kinds of battles that SEC fans saw as titanic defensive showdowns, the stuff that the history of the league was built on. On Saturday, Alabama and LSU finally found a happy medium, a 21-17 Alabama win that was as notable for the electricity that it generated in the second half as for the fact that it kept the Tide's and the SEC's national championship hopes alive. For once, the two teams produced a game worthy of the build-up, and the kind of game that rewarded those who pushed past the narrative to tune in anyway.
McCarron had played his way into contention for the Heisman Trophy with the efficient way he ran the Crimson Tide’s offense. Only recently, as Alabama rolled through its schedule, had McCarron’s brilliance — he had 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions entering Saturday — been appreciated. In all but two drives, McCarron was not brilliant Saturday. But as halftime approached, McCarron led the Crimson Tide on a 6-play, 63-yard drive, in under a minute, punctuated by his touchdown scamper. He played with similar touch and precision on the final drive, and afterward he said he had studied L.S.U.’s two-minute defense and found areas he could exploit. "He was locked in," Lacy said. "He’s always locked in every game, but it was something different this time, this drive."
"I’ll take T.J. one-on-one against anybody," McCarron said. "That kid’s a freak of nature, man." Yeldon made one sharp cut, Loston flailed and fell. Defensive end Barkevious Mingo made one vain, diving attempt at the tackle and that was it. Touchdown. Crowd in shock. "It was a surreal feeling watching him," Jones said. "I was looking around for flags. I didn’t want to get too excited until I was sure." There were no flags. And there was no joy for the home team, which had played the Tide off their feet and to the brink of defeat. "This one hurt," LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan said. "We put our heart and soul into it. We had the game in our hands and little mistakes cost us the game."
"(Nussmeier) made a great play call. He felt like they were going to bring pressure, and they did," McCarron said. "I felt like it was going to be a good play, I just had to kind of jump off my back foot and get it high and give (Yeldon) a chance." Said Tony McCarron: "(A.J.) said all year long that T.J. is unbelievable, they just have to get him in the right situation. That was the right situation."
He found them in that mosh pit of Crimson in the southeast corner of Tiger Stadium. They ran down the aluminum steps to see him; he reached up into the crisp, cool air to grab them. And the tears flowed as AJ McCarron squeezed the last bit of emotion from this game into the outstretched arms of his parents. "So emotional," McCarron said. "So many thoughts going through my head." Only one really mattered: Alabama survived.
Tide rolls when it counts: For the majority of the game, the Crimson Tide couldn't get anything going against the Tigers' defense. But when it mattered, A.J. McCarron and the Alabama offense looked unstoppable. On its three scoring drives, Alabama racked up 227 yards, including a 92-yarder that started from its own 8-yard line with its backs against the LSU student section. The Tide managed only 104 yards of offense on every other drive.
Les Miles just got be-hatted. The "Mad Hatter" coach went 0-for on fakes and fourth downs for the first time in his LSU career, and No. 1 Alabama came from behind in the final moments for a 21-17 victory in front of 93,374 - the largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history – Saturday night. No. 5 LSU led 17-14 with just 1:34 to play in the game, but Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron threw a short pass to tailback T.J. Yeldon, who shredded LSU’s defense for a 28-yard touchdown and the lead with 51 seconds to play. The score capped a 72-yard drive by Alabama (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) in just five plays and 43 seconds to end the nation’s longest home winning streak at 22 games. Alabama coach Nick Saban also handed Miles just his second Saturday night loss through 38 games and eight years at LSU. "That was obviously and impressive drive," Saban said. "It's something I'll never forget." Neither will LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan. "We dominated the second half," he said. "One play cost us the game."
"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)."
But before that, LSU lost the game the first time by failing to get one more first down. The Tigers, leading 17-14 with 7:20 to play in the game, drove from their 18-yard line to the Alabama 32 while collecting three first downs and making Alabama use all of its timeouts by the 2:28 mark. After quarterback Zach Mettenberger topped off the best game of his career with a 22-yard completion to wide receiver Odell Beckham for that last first down, though, LSU coach Les Miles went to the ground game exclusively. Only then did Alabama stop the drive, forcing a field goal attempt on fourth and six from the Tide's 28. Drew Alleman missed it. Alabama took over with 1:34 left and drove 72 yards in five plays and 49 seconds for the win. "It's still killing me that we didn't finish that last drive getting the first down when we needed it," LSU offensive tackle Josh Dworaczyk said. "To give the ball back to Alabama's offense with the things that they were capable of doing on that last drive, I think those are the kinds of things they've been doing all year long. It's a huge emotional swing. We wanted to close off that last drive."
What we learned That Alabama could respond when finally pushed to the brink. The Crimson Tide hadn’t trailed but 15 seconds in its first eight games, but faced with a do-or-die situation with 1:34 remaining down 17-14, Bama drove 72 yards for the game-winning score. The Tide’s BCS championship dreams didn’t die on this night.
All the numbers but the 21-17 final score seemed to favor the Tigers. LSU outgained Bama 435-331 — and lost. LSU got 107 yards rushing from Jeremy Hill — the Tigers were 31-2 under Miles coming in with a back rushing for 100 yards — and lost. LSU held a stunning 39:15 to 20:45 edge in time of possession — and lost. Zach Mettenberger, who everyone said needed to play the game of his young LSU career for the Tigers to have a chance, did exactly that. He stood his ground against Nick Saban’s multi-planed blitzes and delivered 298 yards on 24 of 35 passing, one touchdown and no interceptions — and lost. Speaking of turnovers, Bama had two and LSU had none — and lost. And, finally, LSU went 10 of 20 on third down to Alabama’s 1 of 9, a team forcing opponents into three-and-outs nearly 50 percent of the time — and lost.
Zach Mettenberger inherited the job of starting quarterback at LSU with great fan fare, billed as an upgrade from the Jordan Jefferson-Jarrett Lee combo that led the Tigers to the BCS title game last season. Just in time for the Alabama game, Mettenberger seemingly arrived. The junior quarterback connected on 24 of 35 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown, outdueling dark horse Heisman Trophy hopeful A.J. McCarron and nearly leading the fifth-ranked Tigers to an upset of No. 1 Alabama. A late touchdown gave the Crimson Tide a 21-17 lead to keep alive Alabama’s hopes of a repeat national championship. "As well as I played, I would’ve traded three interceptions for the win tonight," Mettenberger said.
"We let this get away," LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. "We had tons of opportunities to maximize in the game. But we couldn’t put them away. Sometimes, it’s not the best team, but it’s the most disciplined team. It’s tough. It was slow death."
Losses don't get any more heart-breaking than this. If the Crimson Tide goes on to win its second consecutive national title in January, they will remember the frantic and furious 43 seconds of their stunning 21-17 victory against LSU as the catalyst. And for LSU, it will be a long time before the Tigers recover from one of the most heartbreaking defeats in the long, storied history of Tiger Stadium. The loss to Alabama in the BCS title game was stupefying in its completeness. This one was stunning in its suddenness. And it will undoubtedly hurt more.
"I'm proud of my team," Miles said. "I loved how they fought. I wish I had a couple of my calls back, just so you know. "Obviously, when they don't work, you'd always like to have them back." While message boards and the LSU postgame radio show crackled with criticism skewering Miles, his players had a different viewpoint. "He made those calls and we were behind him 100 percent," senior lineman Josh Dworaczyk said. "We work on those things and we tell him we want to run them. "Coach Miles save us everything he had and left it out there on the field just like we did. That's what he wanted out of us and that's what he got out of himself."
No. 1-ranked Alabama broke LSU's heart for the second consecutive meeting but in an entirely different fashion. Instead of squeezing it slowly for four quarters, the Tide ripped it out of the Tigers' collective chest, taking with it what looked like a stunning LSU upset Saturday night before a record paid crowd of 93,374 in Tiger Stadium. AJ McCarron's 28-yard screen pass for a touchdown to T.J. Yeldon with 51 seconds remaining rescued the struggling Tide for a 21-17 victory that will be as hard to forget as the 21-0 crush job in last season's BCS title game. "Our football team came in here to play to win," LSU Coach Les Miles said afterward. "We went after it, and thought we played extremely hard. There are some sick guys back there."