LSU Plays Lights Out, Puts Alabama's Playoff Hopes in Serious Jeopardy
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Maybe there’s something to this whole playing after dark thing.
When the University of Alabama football team hosted LSU on Saturday, the matchup of No. 1 teams in different polls was supposed to be the Crimson Tide’s launching point into another championship run.
Junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was able to come back and start 20 days after having surgery to help a high-ankle sprain heal. The President was on-hand. Even the weather was perfect.
That is until kickoff and Alabama had a disastrous first half.
Plagued by miscues and turnovers, along with both LSU and senior quarterback Joe Burrow playing lights out, Alabama spotted the Tigers 20 points at halftime en route to a 46-41 loss.
Nick Saban’s team did manage to make it interesting after the sun set (ironically against the team that prides itself on playing its best in the dark), but it was simply LSU’s day.
“We were humbled,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said.
Actually, the game teetered on becoming a rout, so the comeback was especially important in keeping Alabama’s College Football Playoff hopes alive. At 8-1 it’ll drop out of the top four and likely need some help to have a chance at making the semifinals.
LSU, Ohio State and Clemson are all still undefeated and assured spots as long as they keep winning. Alabama doesn’t have a strong win on its resume so Crimson Tide fans need to start rooting for chaos against the likes of Georgia, Oklahoma and Oregon.
“We know it ’aint over,” redshirt senior linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
While LSU (9-0, 5-0 SEC) was channeling into years of frustration thanks to an eight-game losing streak, and Burrow looking very much like a Heisman Trophy quarterback, Tagovailoa was clearly rusty.
He finished 21-for-40 for 418 yards with four touchdowns, but two turnovers that were converted into 14 points. It was Tagovailoa’s worst completion percentage (.525) since the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, when he didn’t finish due to injuries.
Burrow was 31-for-39 (79.5 percent) for 393 passing yards and three touchdowns, and, perhaps most importantly, didn’t have a turnover. LSU was 8 of 15 on third downs en route to tallying 559 total yards.
“They have no weaknesses on offense,” Saban said. “I can’t give them enough credit.”
Thanks to a last-minute 85-yard score, junior wide receiver DeVonta Smith finished with seven catches for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Junior running back Najee Harris, who keyed the second-half comeback, had 146 rushing yards on 19 carries and a rushing score, plus three receptions for 44 yards and another touchdown.
Alabama’s first series ended up foreshadowing everything to follow, when Tagovailoa, after quickly guiding the offense into the red zone, fumbled while scrambling. LSU answered with a six-play, 92-yard touchdown drive as Burrow connected with Ja'Marr Chase for a 33-yard touchdown.
When the subsequent possession fizzled, punter Ty Perine fumbled the snap and was brought down in Alabama territory. When officials placed the ball for the first play, and the Crimson Tide wasn’t set, cornerback Trevon Diggs still managed to make an interception only to have it nullified by a penalty for having too many men on the field.
Thanks to a Jennings sack the Tigers had to settle for a 40-yard field goal, yet still had a 10-0 lead with Alabama looking like it wasn’t used to playing in a big-game setting.
Two plays kept Alabama alive early, a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown by Jaylen Waddle, and a 64-yard touchdown by Smith after LSU was caught flat-footed by a change in the snap cadence.
However, things fell apart just before halftime.
There was the loss of a controversial replay review, followed by a 1-yard up-and-over touchdown on third down.
With 26 seconds until halftime, Saban opted not to take a knee and go for points, especially since LSU was due to receive the second-half kickoff. Tagovailoa’s pass over the middle was picked off with the return aided by a personal-foul penalty.
Burrow hit running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire for the crucial touchdown and a lead Alabama was never able to catch.
“Since the result that we got, was what we got, I wish we would've ran the ball,” Saban reflected during his postgame press conference. “I wish we would've taken a knee. We had two timeouts. We were trying to throw a chunk play and maybe hit a big play. We have a lot of capability to do that, and we trusted the quarterback to make a good decision. They played zone and intercepted the ball.
“Based on what happened, I definitely, if I have a do-over, and I know that was going to happen, we would've kneeled on the ball. Being aggressive, and in the game at the time, I thought we would throw the ball down the field and give ourselves a chance to make a big play, and even if it was a bad play, it would be no worse than a punt. It was obviously a mistake on our part, and I take all the blame for that.”
That was very different from what the coach told sideline reporters before heading to the locker room at halftime: "The way the half ended is terrible. To let them score two touchdowns in the last 30 seconds of the half is ridiculous and makes a big difference in the game and now you have to play the game in the second half. It’s probably our worst half of football that we’ve played all year when it comes to discipline and execution on both sides of the ball, so you get what you deserve, I guess.”
One consolation to Alabama fans is that they’ve been here before in almost this exact same situation. In 2011, LSU won the Game of the Century at Bryant-Denny Stadium, 9-6 in overtime, only to have Alabama force a rematch in the BCS Championship Game.
Ed Orgeron wasn’t thinking about that afterward when caught on camera bellowing “This is our house from now on!”
He was thinking something more along the lines of taps, as Alabama’s claim to being the only team to make the playoff every year is very much in jeopardy of soon being dead — just like the Crimson Tide's 31-game home winning streak.
“That was a wake-up call, and we know that,” McKinney said. “We just don’t think it’s over yet.”