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STILL THE ONE

Nov. 14, 2011
Nov. 14, 2011

Table of Contents
Nov. 14, 2011

LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
LSU-ALABAMA
PRO FOOTBALL
  • As the sidelined Peyton Manning looks on in dismay, the winless Colts are enduring a disastrous season that could put them in position to draft ... his successor. A team and a town are conflicted.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW
DEWAYNE DEDMON
POINT AFTER
Departments

STILL THE ONE

An instant classic it was not. But after LSU and Alabama played more than 60 minutes of tense, hard-hitting football, the national championship picture had not changed: The top-ranked Tigers remain the team to beat

Sam Montgomery was feeling expansive in the afterglow of LSU's upset that wasn't really an upset, in the Game of the Century that wasn't even the best game in its time slot last Saturday night. Third-ranked Oklahoma State's cardiac-arresting 52--45 win over Kansas State featured a dozen touchdowns—12 more than were scored in the No. 1 Tigers' 9--6 overtime victory at No. 2 Alabama.

This is an article from the Nov. 14, 2011 issue

As any of Donald Trump's wives can tell you, however, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What some regarded as an ugly game, Montgomery praised as "a great, classical battle between two SEC heavyweights. This game should've been on pay-per-view!" Montgomery, a valuable, voluble defensive end whose six tackles against 'Bama included two sacks, was effusive in his praise of the Tide's terrific tailback, Trent Richardson, and all-SEC left tackle Barrett Jones. "He handled my bum rush very well," Montgomery reported. "He stopped me in my tracks at times."

Beg your pardon, Monty: bum rush?

"It's actually a bull rush. I call it a bum rush."

The bum's rush, on the other hand, is what LSU coach Les Miles gave quarterback Jarrett Lee after the senior threw his second interception, early in the second half. Jordan Jefferson took over and—along with a defense that proved itself to be on a par with 'Bama's, heretofore the best unit in the country—basically saved the Tigers' bacon.

"I think the world wants a rematch," declared Montgomery, "and it would be lovely to play such a great, complete team like that" again.

Montgomery is off on a couple of points. First, there are plenty of people in places like Stillwater, Palo Alto and Boise who—should the undefeated Cowboys, Cardinal and Broncos win out—will be most put out if a one-loss Alabama edges them out for a spot in the BCS national title game. Their anger might even approach that of Tide coach Nick Saban, who became apoplectic early in the second quarter as his offense moved backward on the series of downs preceding his team's third unsuccessful field goal on three straight possessions.

Which leads us to Monty's second mistake. Alabama is extremely talented, deep and well-coached (although, for the second straight season, Saban was outfoxed by his peculiar counterpart, the fescue-nibbling, against-the-grain Miles). For a team to truly be complete, it needs to avoid the special-teams meltdown suffered by the Tide. Alabama failed to convert four of six field goal attempts (two wide right, one hooked left and one blocked). Cade Foster's final—a wobbling, ungainly effort in overtime—all but ensured the team's first loss since last Nov. 26.

"It's nobody's fault," said Saban, graciously providing cover for his snakebitten kickers. "It all starts right here."

For LSU junior kicker Drew Alleman, it all started in the preseason, in those moments after a long, grueling practice when Miles would summon his field goal team. "He'd line us up and tell the rest of the team, 'If he makes it, we're going inside. If he misses it, we're running sprints.'"

How many times has Alleman forced his teammates to run sprints? "Hasn't happened yet," he reports. Although he'd booted the state championship--winning field goal as time expired in 2006 for Acadiana (La.) High, Alleman, a first-year starter for the Tigers, had yet to face a pressure kick in college. On Saturday night, in a defense-dominated slugfest that magnified the value of each field goal, he was a perfect three-for-three. This game might have been close on the scoreboard, but the special teams battle was a blowout.

Which is how it came to pass that, in the LSU postgame interview area, the largest throngs of reporters clustered around ... the kicker and the punter. While Alleman held court on a dais, punter Brad Wing stood 15 feet away recounting his long journey to Baton Rouge.

A 20-year-old freshman from Melbourne, Australia, Brad is the son of David Wing, a punter who was cut by the Detroit Lions in 1996 but then spent a season with the Scottish Claymores of the now defunct NFL Europe. In 2009 a family friend persuaded Brad to attend high school in Baton Rouge as an exchange student. His booming punts for the Parkview Baptist Eagles quickly caught the attention of LSU coaches, who offered him a scholarship. Wing, you may recall, was the poor sap who had a touchdown erased in LSU's 41--11 win over Florida on Oct. 8. His 52-yard run for a score on a fake punt was nullified for alleged "excessive celebration": He'd raised his arms a few yards before crossing the goal line.

The notoriety he earned for that stunt is quickly being eclipsed by his talent. Wing is an ex--Aussie Rules football player who can kick with either foot and whose nickname might as well be Spatula, so often did he flip the field for LSU on Saturday.

It was an evening of surpassing strangeness. Two of the biggest heroes were kicking specialists; two offenses that had averaged more than 39 points a game were held to fewer than 10; and Miles, known for eccentric and often disjointed postgame pronouncements, was cogent and even eloquent. "Overtime is when your mettle's tested most," he said. "Victory will be decided in this very short amount of time."

Miles also had a very good night on the sideline. When Lee dug a snap out of the dirt and then rushed a throw that was easily intercepted by safety Robert Lester, Miles sat him for the rest of the half. That decision opened him up to criticism: Lee and Jefferson had been splitting series for the previous four games. But against a pass rush as ferocious as the Tide's, Lee's lack of mobility was a problem. If there was any further doubt that Jefferson should be taking the bulk of the snaps, Lee erased it with his only throw of the second half, a homely pass picked off by safety Mark Barron.

As it had all night, the Tigers' defense came "off the mat," as Miles, the former high school wrestler, repeatedly put it, and forced the Tide into its fifth field goal attempt of the evening. It was would prove to be the highlight of his night, Foster punched a 46-yarder through the uprights. The Tide having botched three previous field goals, at least some of the ensuing cheers from the 'Bama faithful were of the sarcastic variety—Will wonders never cease! As the game went on and the Tide failed to cash in on opportunity after opportunity, the tiny contingent of purple-and-gold-clad people in Bryant-Denny Stadium became disproportionately loud.

It was 60° and sunny four hours before kickoff, which meant, of course, that it was standing-room only in Rounders, a dark, smoke-filled public house with no cover and seven televisions, all of them airing college football. In one corner of the bar the three-member Sean Rivers Band drew robust boos when it had the temerity to play Louisiana Saturday Night.

"I'll hate LSU starting around seven tonight," said Rivers, the guitarist and lead singer and member of Alabama's class of 2007. "But the truth is, I love Louisiana people. We've played in Baton Rouge. They're the most hospitable people in the world."

Nearby stood a clutch of Tigers fans, a tiny atoll of purple in a crimson sea. It included Mike Stutes, who owns a furniture store in Lafayette, La. Asked how he'd been received by the Tide fans, he replied, "No problems. This is probably my favorite road trip. The people here are a lot better than at Auburn."

Outside, in the shadow of Bryant-Denny, Kenneth White sat in a lawn chair and smiled. White, 55, was one of an estimated 50,000 fans (according to Tuscaloosa police) who showed up without a ticket and watched or listened to the game within a mile of the stadium. "I simply couldn't miss this one," said White, a lifelong Tide fan who happens to live in Bush, La. "I've got a feeling we'll be talking about this for many, many years to come."

While the lion did not exactly lie down with the lamb in Tuscaloosa, Tigers fans were, for the most part, made to feel welcome. The most frequently heard taunt emanating from 'Bama fans: the mild and mildly clever "LS Who?"

What you have between these two fan bases—and teams—is not so much a vitriol-fueled rivalry as a mutual admiration society. That admiration only deepened over four quarters and one overtime session on Saturday. "Alabama is definitely worthy of being Number 2," declared Tigers sophomore safety Eric Reid after the game. "I think they should stay right where they are."

While most of the rest of the country shares the sentiment expressed by Apollo Creed in Rocky—"Ain't gonna be no rematch!"—the vast majority of Tide fans and a good chunk of SEC partisans agree with Reid. The Tide shouldn't be punished for this loss. The national consensus going into the Showdown in T-Town held that there was a significant gap between these two teams and the rest of the field. Nothing that happened Saturday should change that. The lack of offense resulted from a pair of ridiculously good defenses.

Despite Alabama's gentle treatment by the BSC computers, which nudged them to third from second in the standings, the Tide will still need help making the national title game. For that to happen Oklahoma State and Stanford, second and fourth in the standings, will probably have to lose. While the BCS computers don't care that Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck turned down NFL millions to complete his degree in architectural design, the voters in the Harris and USA Today coaches' polls do. There's a strong desire to see how Luck fares against an SEC opponent or how the high-powered Cowboys offense fares against an SEC D. (The Tide ranks fourth in both polls.) Given the choice, a lot of the voters will give someone else a chance.

That doesn't change the fact that the SEC remains the most talented and the toughest conference. "I'm limping when I walk," said Reid. "That was definitely a physical game."

It was a game that turned on a play he made.

You knew this moment was coming. Like the Mordor-forged battering ram used by the Orcs to splinter the gates of Minas Tirith, Trent Richardson had been hurling himself at Tigers defenders for three quarters and seemed to be gaining strength. On Alabama's first possession of the fourth quarter he hammered for two yards, then three. On second-and-seven from his own 48 the wood cracked. Taking the handoff, Richardson eluded Tyrann Mathieu, knifing in on a corner blitz, then broke three tackles en route to a 24-yard gain, the longest run of the night. LSU's defense was officially worn down.

Rather than continue the battering, Saban chose this moment to channel ... Les Miles. Wideout Marquise Maze, a former high school quarterback, took a direct snap out of the Wildcat formation and lofted a deep pass to the wide-open Michael Williams, a 6'6", 269-pound tight end.

"They got us on a shift, so [Williams] was left uncovered," recalled Reid, who left his man to cover the tight end while the ball was in the air. While Williams appeared to take possession first, Reid somehow wrested the ball from him as they tumbled to the turf at the one-yard line.

Those heroics were defused, somewhat, by LSU's ensuing three-and-out. Before Wing trotted onto the field to punt from his own end zone, Miles bade him to "go out there and have fun."

"I said, 'Yes, sir,'" says Wing, whose repertoire includes two distinct kinds of kicks. His drop punt, used when the ball is across the 50, is booted deliberately high and with a backward, end-over-end spin, the better to prevent touchbacks. For longer kicks, he resorts to what he calls the "traditional American-style spiral punt."

It was one of those latter kicks that he sent rocketing out of the range of the confused and hobbled Maze, who'd earlier sprained his right ankle, and now watched helplessly as the ball took a Tigers bounce and rolled to Alabama's 18-yard line—a 73-yard punt.

"You could see it coming," says Alleman. "Fourth quarter and still no touchdowns, you know what this game is coming down to."

Foster, Alabama's beleaguered kicker, appeared to see it. Saban still had two timeouts in his pocket when Alabama took over on its own 20 with 52 seconds to play. But he let the clock run out. When it became obvious that Saban was playing for overtime, Foster could be seen standing alone at a corner of the bench. Eyes wide, mouth open, he looked as if he'd seen a ghost.

Eight minutes later he made his glum way onto the field to attempt a 52-yarder that never had a chance. Seldom has a crowd of 101,821 been so mute.

On LSU's second play of overtime running back Michael Ford appeared to score on a 22-yard run around left end. The Tigers bench emptied ... prematurely. The football gods having decreed that no player should score an actual touchdown in this game, Ford had stepped out-of-bounds at the seven.

Did the call make Miles irate? No, he was busy "trying to get those knuckleheads off the field so we didn't get called for celebration."

Those festivities commenced three plays later, when Alleman's chip shot from 25 yards made it official: In addition to being one of the country's most physically gifted teams, LSU is also the most resilient. Despite the illness of assistant coach Steve Kragthorpe (who was found over the summer to have Parkinson's disease), the suspensions of key players and an unwieldy two-quarterback system that shouldn't work but does, LSU is in a strong position to be invited to its second BCS title game under Miles and its third since the 2003 season.

Who will take the field against the Tigers in New Orleans should they survive Arkansas the day after Thanksgiving, then dispatch their foe (probably Georgia) in the SEC title game? Alabama players aren't touching that one. "For us, it's not about getting another shot at LSU," intoned linebacker Courtney Upshaw. "It's about getting ready for Mississippi State."

"We're not thinking about playing them again," said center William Vlachos.

But they can't always be expected to echo the company line. The last two Alabama players to walk off the field were Richardson and left guard Chance Warmack, who had tears streaming down his face. Draping an arm around Warmack, Richardson sought to reassure the big man: "It's O.K., it's O.K. We'll be back."

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IT WAS AN EVENING OF SURPASSING STRANGENESS. TWO OFFENSES THAT HAD AVERAGED 39 POINTS A GAME WERE HELD TO FEWER THAN 10, AND MILES WAS COGENT AND EVEN ELOQUENT.
ALLEMAN'S CHIP SHOT MADE IT OFFICIAL: IN ADDITION TO BEING ONE OF THE COUNTRY'S MOST PHYSICALLY GIFTED TEAMS, LSU IS ALSO THE MOST RESILIENT.
PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANSTURNING THE TIDE Mathieu (7) celebrated the fourth-quarter goal line interception by Reid (bottom), which prevented a score by Alabama and helped send the game into overtime.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by AL TIELEMANSHIT AND RUN While LSU's defenders kept Richardson (right, 3) from going wild, Jefferson (left, 9) helped spark the Tigers' ground game with his ability to run the option.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERGETTING THEIR KICKS The Tigers dominated special teams play, blocking one field goal and getting misses on three others from Foster (43), while also getting an almost flawless night from Alleman (30), who kicked the game-winner, and Wing (38).PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above]