Despite lack of offense, LSU proved it's nation's best by beating 'Bama
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- What? You thought the Game of the Century would feature 100 points?
Admittedly, most of us assumed there would at least be a few touchdowns. Just one would have been nice. But for anyone who found No. 1 LSU's 9-6 overtime victory over No. 2 Alabama on Saturday to be ugly, unsatisfying or somehow unimpressive, Tigers defensive end Sam Montgomery has a message for you.
"This is the way football is supposed to be played," said the man whose third-down sack of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron in the first overtime possession typified a night of defensive dominance. "It's not about running up the score. This is how two great teams in a great atmosphere are supposed to play."
It was far from an all-time classic, but the sport's lowest-scoring 1 vs. 2 game since 1946 proved one thing with absolute certainty: LSU is indeed the nation's top team. The 9-0 Tigers opened the season in Dallas against a top-five Oregon team and shut down the Ducks' explosive spread offense. They went to Morgantown, W. Va., and held a high-scoring West Virginia offense to 21 points. They clobbered Florida and Auburn, owners of two of the past three national titles.
And on Saturday night, in hostile Bryant-Denny Stadium, they held the No. 2 team in the country to a mere two field goals, moved the Tide backward in overtime and, as Les Miles' teams are prone to do, overcame their own offensive struggles with a combination of lights-out special teams and well-timed forced turnovers.
Consider: The Tigers' starting quarterback in their first eight games, Jarrett Lee -- who came in as the SEC's most efficient passer -- threw two interceptions, prompting Miles to revert to a de facto option offense with replacement Jordan Jefferson.
They still won.
"It certainly didn't go by the script -- not ours, not theirs," said Miles. "Not necessarily a pretty game, but a nice ending."
It ended with LSU kicker Drew Alleman drilling a 25-yard field goal in overtime to turn 101,821 crimson-clad spectators deathly silent. The home fans had reason to be stunned. Several times in the second half it appeared Alabama -- up 6-3 heading into the fourth quarter -- would finally assert its will and put away the visitors. Instead, the Tigers notched two drive-killing interceptions, one at the LSU one-yard-line when cornerback Eric Reid wrestled away a potential touchdown catch from Tide tight end Michael Williams.
When Alabama looked like it would start its next drive with good field position, invaluable punter Brad Wing boomed one 73 yards. And when 'Bama took possession first in overtime, the Tigers never let Tide star Trent Richardson touch the ball, sacked McCarron and forced 'Bama to kick a hopeless 52-yard field goal -- its fourth miss of the day.
LSU took over and promptly ran the ball down to the seven-yard-line, setting up Alleman's game-winner.
"Those are two great teams," Alabama coach Nick Saban said afterward. "LSU has a very good team. They're No. 1 in the country for a reason."
Scanning Twitter during the second half, one could quickly find the inevitable backlash. Wasn't this the same kind of offensive debacle for which Big Ten teams constantly get ripped? How could we say definitively these defenses were so good when the quarterbacks were so bad?
We can say those things because we've seen what LSU's and Alabama's offenses have done against their other eight opponents. They both came in averaging more than 40 points per game, yet when they ran into each other's loaded defenses they couldn't crack 10, even with an extra period. Alabama's Trent Richardson, arguably the hardest player in the country to tackle, had a handful of big plays (including 18- and 22-yard gains on his first two touches), but 15 of his 23 carries went for three yards or less.
That's good defense.
Miles, in his patented vernacular that makes it difficult to tell whether he's joking or deadly serious, said he envisioned "scoring 35 to 45 [points]. I knew we'd be going up and down the field. I was extremely confident."
Asked later when he realized he'd have to deviate from the script, Miles deadpanned: "About the first series."
The Tide came in ranked first nationally in scoring, total and rushing defense, and Saturday they held the Tigers to 239 total yards. When it became apparent his season-long formula of inside running and high-percentage Lee passes wasn't going to work, Miles switched to the more mobile Jefferson, whose scrambling ability helped the Tigers move the ball -- just not into the end zone.
Miles briefly returned to Lee in the third quarter, only to have him throw an ugly pick on his first attempt. Lee never saw the field again. Meanwhile, Jefferson (11 carries, 43 yards) and running back Michael Ford (11 carries, 72 yards) got going. As it became apparent that ball control and field position would rule the day, LSU excelled at both, ultimately finishing with 148 rushing yards. That's 104 more than Alabama had allowed on average.
"In this game, a couple of scrambles made the difference, just moving the chains have us a huge advantage," said Miles. "[Jefferson] gave us something there."
Afterward, Tigers coaches and players answered the predictable questions about a potential BCS championship rematch with the Crimson Tide. Miles even said he would be "honored" if it came to that.
Let's put that one to bed right now.
There will be no need for a January rematch on a neutral field in New Orleans, because LSU went to Tuscaloosa and earned its win straight up. Besides, why watch these teams face each other again when there are so many intriguing possibilities out there for the Tigers? Who wouldn't want to see lockdown cornerback Morris Claiborne match up with Oklahoma State star receiver Justin Blackmon? Or Montgomery try to sack Stanford's Andrew Luck? Or Tyrann Mathieu try to intercept Boise State's Kellen Moore?
Before they can do any of that, however, the Tigers have to navigate the rest of the road in front of them, including yet another date with a likely Top 10 team: No. 8 Arkansas (8-1) on Thanksgiving weekend. As big as this win was, the Tigers will still need that one just to win the SEC West. And Miles must figure out once again who his starting quarterback will be going forward (the guess here: Jefferson).
"This was a very, very big game," said Miles. "But the games coming up are bigger. [Saturday's win] gives us the lead in the SEC West ... but that's all we have."
There may be another 1 vs. 2 game in the Tigers' future, but it probably won't be against Alabama. Now that this long-awaited game is finally in the books, we turn our attention to Stanford-Oregon next week and any number of other games that will affect the national-championship matchup.
But everyone else is still looking up at LSU. The absence of a touchdown Saturday night didn't change that.
"They've all been challenging," Claiborne said of the Tigers' daunting schedule to date. "But this game here, it was a little bit tougher. We put a lot more into it."
Don't be fooled by the final score. It showed.