Alabama 21, LSU 17: SEC epic ends in familiar fashion

Despite the best efforts of the media to manufacture similar levels of hype for this year’s meeting between Alabama and LSU, it never really reached the same fever pitch of anticipation that either game between the two SEC West powers produced a year ago. Yet, the on-field drama of the Crimson Tide’s 21-17 victory Saturday night far exceeded its predecessors from last season.

The Tigers, double-digit underdogs in their own friendly confines, pushed ‘Bama to the brink in a way that no opponent has this year. LSU owned the Tide in terms of total offense (435 yards to 331) and time of possession (39:15 to 20:45) as the Bayou Bengals consistently strung together methodical drives (85 total offensive plays). The Tigers’ defense limited ‘Bama to just 1/9 conversions on third and fourth down and won the turnover battle, 2-0.

LSU did its damage to the Tide’s vaunted defense in unexpected fashion. The coaching staff opened up the offense for quarterback Zach Mettenberger, heretofore considered the Tigers’ weak link, and he responded with a sublime outing. The junior quarterback spread the ball around to seven different receivers, completing 24 of 35 passing attempts for 296 yards and a touchdown.

Alabama’s ruthless march towards its second consecutive national championship appeared to be stuck in quicksand early in the fourth quarter. Above the Mason-Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi, the cheers were audible from fans who have tired of the SEC’s dominance when Mettenberger rifled a 14-yard TD pass to wideout Jarvis Landry, putting LSU up 17-14 with 13 minutes remaining.

It feels hella cliche to say this, but from that point on, Alabama just found a way to win. Unfortunately, there’s no better way to describe it.

The ‘Bama D stiffened up on one promising LSU drive, stopping the Tigers on a curious Wildcat quarterback call by Les Miles on 4th-and-1 in Tide territory. Later in the game, an 11-play LSU drive chewed up nearly six minutes off the clock, but an errant 45-yard field goal attempt by kicker Drew Alleman gave the Tide one final shot to keep their title hopes alive.

Nick Saban’s team wouldn’t squander it. Alabama QB A.J. McCarron made up for a pedestrian evening (14-of-27 attempts, 165 yards, 1 TD) by zipping the Tide down the field against soft pass coverage on a five-play touchdown drive that took a mere 34 seconds off the clock and covered 72 yards. When rookie runner T.J. Yeldon took a screen pass 28 yards to paydirt with 51 seconds left in the game, both teams’ fates were sealed.

It was an unfamiliar path to a familiar destination: Alabama on top, with a national championship in its sights.