BATON ROUGE, La. -- Terry Saban, the first lady of Alabama football, sat in a tiny room under the stands at Tiger Stadium late Saturday and slid a finger along the screen of her smartphone. Less than 30 minutes after the Crimson Tide’s national title hopes lay on the turf with the ball T.J. Yeldon dropped as his ankle twisted beneath him, Miss Terry had to catch her breath. She also had to catch up on her text messages.
“Half of my messages,” she said, “are O-M-G.”
Whether that phrase was texted in elation or frustration Saturday depended on the color of the clothes of the person texting. If he or she wore crimson and white, the text conveyed disbelief that Alabama had found its way to a 20-13 overtime win. Meanwhile, on other phones owned by people wearing purple and gold, the texts also probably included several choice four-letter words directed at officials, who A) flagged LSU guard Vadal Alexander for unsportsmanlike conduct with 1:07 remaining when players from both teams were jawing and shoving and B) elected not to flag any of Bama’s defensive backs, who on the final two downs of overtime either legally blanketed LSU’s receivers (what men in stripes believed) or illegally pounded them before the ball arrived (what most of the 102,231 inside Tiger Stadium believed).
Let’s take each team separately, because the combatants in such a grueling test of wills each deserve their say. We’ll begin with Alabama, which needed a win to stay in control of its SEC and national title destiny and which was, for all intents and purposes, dead the moment LSU linebacker Lamar Louis forced the ball out of Yeldon’s hands with just over a minute left in fourth quarter. The Tide were done. Out. All but buried. LSU had a first-and-goal from the Alabama six-yard line with 73 seconds remaining. At the very least, the Tigers would milk a little clock -- Alabama had all its timeouts -- and kick a field goal. More than likely, given the momentum swing created by the fumble, LSU’s massive line would open a hole for Terrence Magee or Leonard Fournette, who would rumble into the end zone.
Even if they didn’t that field goal would probably be enough, given that Alabama's offense had averaged a paltry 3.6 yards a play to that point and had a whopping one first down in the second half. How would the Tide move the ball down the field against a defense that had solved them? Even if they did, kicker Adam Griffith had missed five of his previous nine field goal attempts. Every sign pointed to an LSU victory that could help plunge the SEC West into the kind of chaos that could knock every team in the league out of the College Football Playoff hunt.
On the Alabama sideline, coach Nick Saban spoke to his defense. “This is where you show you know how to win,” Saban remembered saying. “You’ve got to stop them right here.”
LSU did not reach the end zone in part because a shoving match broke out after the first play on that possession, a Magee run for no gain. Though participants came from both sides, officials flagged only Alexander. We’ll examine this more later, but immediate upshot was that LSU suddenly faced second-and-goal from the 21-yard line. Instead of trying to throw for the end zone, LSU coach Les Miles played for a Colby Delahoussaye field goal. Delahoussaye delivered from 39 yards out, and the Tigers took a 13-10 lead that practically everyone in America assumed would be the final margin. Should Miles have gone for the end zone? Heck no. The field goal was the wisest play. Just ask the guy with four national title rings. “I bet you there was not anybody that was critical when they were ahead 13-10,” Saban said. “Everybody was probably really happy that they kicked a field goal and they were ahead in the game. Now that they lost the game, everybody’s going to criticize [Miles]. But what if you go for a touchdown and get an interception. Then everybody’s going to say, ‘Why didn’t you kick a field goal?’”
After LSU’s field goal and a Trent Domingue kickoff out of bounds that gave Alabama the ball at its own 35, Saban spoke to his offense. “When the offense went out there with 50 seconds to go, I said ‘This is where you show if you know how to win. You’ve got to go kick a field goal. You’ve got no timeouts,’” he said. Center Ryan Kelly said the Tide practice those two-minute scenarios against the first-team defense every Thursday, right down to the clock play they ran Saturday to save precious time and, as an extra benefit, ensure a Christion Jones catch that may or may not have touched the ground did not get reviewed. Though quarterback Blake Sims had played what was likely his worst game as a starter, he looked like predecessor AJ McCarron did when he led a game-winning drive in the final minutes at Tiger Stadium two years ago. Only this drive didn’t win the game. It led to a Griffith kick that forced overtime.
One of the most underappreciated aspects of this game is it came one yard and one flag from turning in overtime on a fat-guy touchdown. On Alabama’s first play of the extra period, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin opened his bag of tricks. Offensive tackle Cam Robinson split wide and served as a giant decoy. Converted offensive lineman Brandon Greene, who squeezed his 304 pounds into a No. 89 jersey, ran down the seam, caught the first pass of his football career and dragged tacklers to the one-yard line. But Alabama’s Leon Brown had been flagged for a personal foul. That took the ball back to the 15. Four plays later Alabama tailback Derrick Henry took the Tide down to the one-yard line again. Brown was flagged for a false start, pushing Bama back to the six. On the next play, Sims lofted a pass into the right side of the end zone for DeAndrew White. “When the ball was in the air,” Sims said, “my heart stopped beating.” After it landed in White’s hands, White walked toward the stands to savor the moment. An LSU fan dressed in gold flipped White the bird and left his middle finger bobbing in the air as if hoping it might point White back in time to a moment when he hadn’t broken LSU’s heart.
LSU still had a chance, but the team that had tried to sledgehammer Alabama’s defense with 56 carries suddenly opted for a softer touch. Even though Tigers quarterback Anthony Jennings had completed only 8-of-22 attempts for 76 yards, LSU coaches decided to throw on four consecutive downs. And, according to LSU coaches and players, they made the correct choice.
Because even if Travin Dural wasn’t interfered with on the third-down play, the Tigers believe either corner Cyrus Jones or safety Jabriel Washington hit receiver Malachi Dupre before the ball reached him on fourth down. “I also want to look at some of the opportunities for us to catch balls,” Miles said. “That is another piece. Third downs, if we catch a couple of those balls and then in overtime, it could be a different game. Lots of balls hit some guys in the hands and certainly they want to catch it.”
Said Dupre: “I’m not the referees. The DB grabbed my hands. He didn’t hit the ball. He was facing me.”
After Miles realized no call was forthcoming on the fourth-down play in overtime, he screamed. He hadn’t cooled down much in his postgame press conference. And while he simmered about the no-calls on the late passes, he reserved most of his rage for the call on Alexander, who told Miles that he didn’t hit anyone after that Magee run. “I’m going to want to look at [on video] the personal foul down on the goal line before I comment,” Miles said. “If one of my guys did that, I’m going to tell them and I’m going to be up front. But that’s not what I’m told, so I’m going to investigate it and see it.
“The penalty changed the complexion of the game. We don’t get a 15-yard penalty down there then we are at like the five- or seven-yard line and we are talking about driving in for a seven-pointer. Even if the mistake is made on the kickoff and he [Domingue] is supposed to kick it out the back of the end zone and certainly he kicks it out of bounds and gives them a short field. Even if that happens and we had an opportunity at seven, the game is pretty much out of reach. That penalty was a tremendously poignant time of that game. I’m going to reserve view until I see the film. I’ll make that point after.”
Miles will have to hash that out with the SEC office -- and it should be noted that referee Tom Ritter’s crack officiating crew threw no flags flew for this -- but the complaints won’t alter the result of the game. Had the Tigers won Saturday, every SEC team except Mississippi State would’ve had at least two losses. Alabama hosts the undefeated Bulldogs next Saturday in Tuscaloosa and still must face Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Miles, the Lord of Chaos who took a two-loss team to the BCS title during the 2007 season, might have found a way to sneak his team back into the national title conversation.
Instead, Alabama controls its destiny. The Tide can take control of the West by beating the Bulldogs, and they could actually clinch it with a win over Mississippi State combined with an Ole Miss loss at Arkansas and an Auburn loss at Georgia. By the same token, Mississippi State could clinch the West if it wins and those same two division rivals lose. The winner of Saturday’s meeting at Bryant-Denny Stadium has the best chance of any team in the SEC to make the inaugural College Football Playoff.
But with a minute remaining in regulation Saturday, there seemed no conceivable way the Tide would have that opportunity. Even jaded coaches who have seen everything couldn’t hide their joy at cheating playoff death. As Kiffin walked off the field, a voice behind him called “Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaane!” Then Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart tackled Kiffin and mock-wrestled him like eight-year-old best friends would if one of their moms had just promised them ice cream. After a few playful punches from Smart, Kiffin walked right into a hug from Miss Terry, who had a phone in her purse that wouldn’t stop buzzing.
OMG. The Tide survived.