"That was Death Valley. That was the place where opponents' dreams come to die." -- LSU coach Les Miles on the magic of Tiger Stadium, Oct. 13, 2012
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Shortly before Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron boarded a Louisiana-bound plane Friday, he made a promise to his father on the phone. "I will not lose this game, Daddy," the junior told Tony McCarron.
With a three-point deficit, 94 seconds remaining and no timeouts, it sure looked as if McCarron and the Crimson Tide would lose the game. Every vocal chord in Tiger Stadium had flexed and roared, and the team that calls it home had drawn on that power and punched holes in top-ranked Alabama's previously flawless façade. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the impediment to the Tigers' offensive success for most of the season, had emerged from the bye week a new man. He had thrown for nearly 300 yards without an interception. When asked to throw on third down in the second half, Mettenberger had converted on 5-of-6 tries.
McCarron? He'd had a miserable second half. Before Alabama got the ball that last time, the Mobile native had completed 1-of-7 second-half pass attempts for zero yards as the Tigers blanketed his receivers. How in the world would he move the Tide into field goal range, much less the end zone? Seated in the tiny island of crimson amid a sea of purple and gold, McCarron's mother wondered the same thing. "I was about to throw up," Dee Dee Bonner said.
But her son was cool, and so were his teammates. Before Alabama's offense took the field, center Barrett Jones mentioned to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland that while little else had worked, screen passes seemed open. Maybe, just maybe, the Tide could turn the Tigers' relentless pass rush against them. As the Tide huddled for the first play of the drive, the players spoke of making history. Despite the advice of 2011 Outland Trophy winner Jones, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier did not call a screen. Instead, McCarron dropped back and found Kevin Norwood for an 18-yard gain. On the next play, McCarron hit Norwood along the right sideline for 15 yards. On the next play, McCarron hit -- you guessed it, but LSU didn't -- Norwood for an 11-yard gain. Playing the hot hand, McCarron threw at Norwood on a fourth straight play but missed. Then, on second-and-10 from the 28-yard line with exactly a minute remaining, Nussmeier called that screen.
As Jones pinned LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan inside, he couldn't believe how perfectly the play unfolded. For the play to work, LSU needed to blitz. Here was cornerback Jalen Mills flying straight at McCarron. Tailback T.J. Yeldon bluffed a block on Mills, then slipped past him. McCarron saw Mills looming, and he knew exactly what to do. "I just had to get it over him," McCarron said. "I knew he was going to jump. I just had to kind of jump off my back foot and get it high and give [Yeldon] a chance."
Mills didn't jump. He kept running at McCarron. Yeldon, who had combined with McCarron for a botched exchange and a costly fumble deep in LSU territory in the third quarter, snagged the pass at the 33-yard line. Yeldon zipped past the outstretched arms of linebacker Kevin Minter and kept running. Barkevious Mingo, perhaps the only defensive end in the nation capable of running down an elite back in the open field, nearly caught Yeldon at the five, but Mingo only grazed Yeldon's ankles as Yeldon squirted free and into the end zone with 51 seconds remaining. "It was a surreal feeling watching him," Jones said. "You're looking for flags. It's like, 'Before I go crazy, I just want to make sure it's real.'" Alabama's sideline and its small rooting section did go crazy. Meanwhile, the volume everywhere else inside Tiger Stadium dropped from deafening to silent within seconds.
Reality set in for the Tigers three plays later when Alabama's Damion Square sacked Mettenberger seconds before the clock expired to seal the Tide's 21-17 win. Tailback Spencer Ware, whose unsuccessful wildcat run on a key fourth-quarter fourth down in Alabama territory will be examined relentlessly on talk radio shows throughout Louisiana this week, fell to one knee on the 17-yard line and buried his head in his hands. The rest of the Tigers trudged away while Alabama players ran screaming toward the small clutch of Crimson Tide fans in one corner of the stadium. "This one hurt," Logan said. "We put our heart and soul into it. We had the game in our hands, and little mistakes cost us the game."
Tigers coach Les Miles probably will second-guess himself often as he watches film of the loss. A reminder of his second-quarter decision to fake a 47-yard field goal on fourth-and-12 with a throw from holder Brad Wing to kicker Drew Alleman will hurt. So will another look at his choice of the Ware wildcat play on fourth-and-one from the Alabama 24 when Mettenberger and tailback Jeremy Hill were playing the games of their lives. For much of the game, Miles coached as if he considered Alabama the better team. In two meetings last season, Miles took few chances because he believed his Tigers could play toe-to-toe with the Tide. Saturday, Miles opened the playbook. After a 13-play touchdown drive cut Alabama's lead to 14-10 late in the third quarter, Miles called for an onside kick that, had it worked, would have only added to his legend as a freewheeling mad genius. Kicker James Hairston hit the ball perfectly, but Hairston touched the ball after only nine yards and Alabama received excellent field position. In the fourth, after it became apparent LSU could match the Tide, Miles called the game more like he did in LSU's win in Tuscaloosa last year. But even though they proved themselves worthy foes, the Tigers couldn't hold back the Tide in the crucial moment. Afterward, as Miles stood on the field after taping his television show, he looked into the stands and quietly made the same sound everyone in purple and gold made Saturday night.
"Aaaaggggggghhhhh," Miles said. Then he walked away.
Tiger Stadium almost lived up to its billing Saturday. A crowd of 93,374 packed the place and tried to burst the eardrums of anyone within a square mile. "People always ask me what the loudest stadium is," Jones said. "It's not close. It's this one." It was the perfect SEC atmosphere, from the LSU tailgaters who crafted a scale model of a dead elephant out of pork skins and pork tenderloin (for the trunk, of course) to the female Alabama student who wore a sundress festooned with a sticker advertising her sorority and a button that read "MAKE HIS ASS QUIT." For a while, it appeared LSU would make Alabama quit. "We're going to look at the film," Jones said, "and we're going to be sick." Then the Tide offense took the field with 94 seconds remaining.
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.