By The Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — No. 2 Alabama kept coming up short in the biggest game of the season. That very well could be where the Crimson Tide’s national championship aspirations will fall, too.
The Tide botched three field goals and had a trick play backfire in Saturday night’s 9-6 overtime loss to No. 1 LSU in a game that Bama fans will long rue as one that got away.
“If everybody executes in the red area,” Tide wide receiver Marquis Maze said, “that wasn’t even a close game.”
Against the top-ranked team in America, Alabama (8-1, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) was not good enough to overcome those misfires.
They included two missed field goals in the first quarter, a third that was blocked early in the second and a 52-yarder by Cade Foster in overtime that was short and wide left.
The backbreaker, though, was when Eric Reid intercepted Maze’s pass from the wildcat position to tight end Michael Williams on the goal line on first-and-10 from LSU’s 28 early in the fourth.
“He made a good throw,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “We had an opportunity to catch the ball. We didn’t finish the play. We were behind the defense and he made a good throw. We scored on Florida last year on the same play. Their guy did a good job of recovering and certainly did a great job of competing for the ball.”
Now, LSU (9-0, 6-0) has the inside track to the BCS title game, winning on Drew Alleman’s 25-yard field goal in overtime after a fierce defensive struggle in which neither team reached the end zone.
LSU appeared to win the game on Michael Ford’s run around left end after taking a pitch, but he stepped out of bounds at the 7.
After two plays gained nothing, LSU sent on Alleman to attempt his third field goal of the game on third down. Alabama tried to freeze him by calling timeout, but he calmly knocked it through to set off a wild celebration by the visiting team.
The crowd of more than 100,000 at Bryant-Denny Stadium — most of them dressed in crimson — sat in stunned silence as LSU celebrated its victory in only the 23rd regular-season matchup between the top two teams in The Associated Press rankings.
LSU still must win its last three regular-season games — No. 8 Arkansas is the toughest test — and then would have to get through the SEC championship game. But the Tigers are the clear favorite after winning another huge game away from home, emerging with the victory in a matchup between the two teams generally considered the best in the land.
And what if the BCS formula pits LSU against Alabama again in the national championship game?
“I’d be honored to face that team again,” Tigers coach Les Miles said.
Alabama has two remaining SEC games to try to prove itself worthy of a mulligan, at Mississippi State and No. 25 Auburn.
Foster missed two first-quarter field goals, and Jeremy Shelley had one blocked before Shelley finally made one from 34 yards. Alleman kicked a 19-yarder on the final play of the first half, leaving the teams tied at 3 even though the Crimson Tide clearly had the upper hand.
Interceptions set up both field goals in the second half. Foster made one from 46 yards after Jarrett Lee threw his second pick of the game, then Alleman connected from 30 yards after Alabama’s AJ McCarron made an ill-timed throw.
The Tide’s defense held after Maze’s interception, and it looked as though Alabama would get it back in good field position to take another crack at the LSU end zone. But a hobbling Maze, favoring a leg injury, couldn’t catch the long line-drive punt. He turned away from it around his own 40 and the ball rolled all the way to the Alabama 19.
Maze said it hit a wire for one of the TV cameras.
The Tigers got it out to around midfield on their final possession of regulation, then had to punt it away. Alabama took over with only 52 seconds left and settled for overtime.
Unlike Notre Dame’s infamous 10-10 tie with Michigan State in another 1-2 matchup in 1966, when the Irish ran out the clock at the end of the fourth quarter, this one could not end that way.
“When you get blown out, you’ve got lots of issues and problems,” Saban said. “I don’t think anybody could watch that game and say Alabama doesn’t have a really good team and didn’t play a really good game. We just didn’t win.”
Though even with extra time it will go down as the second-lowest scoring No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in the 75-year history of the AP poll. The fewest points in a 1-2 game is zero, the famous Army-Notre Dame scoreless tie in 1946.
The buildup to the game resembled a Super Bowl, especially with both teams getting a couple of weeks to prepare. More than 100,000 fans squeezed into Bryant-Denny Stadium. Tens of thousands more converged on Tuscaloosa without tickets, content to just tailgate, soak up the atmosphere and watch the game on televisions outside the stadium.
Two ferocious defenses lived up to their billing. Alabama came in allowing just 6.9 points and 44.9 yards rushing per game, leading the nation in both categories, and the second-fewest passing yards. LSU wasn’t far behind in any of those categories.
The Tide finished with 295 yards, while the Tigers won with just 239.
“Defense wins ball games,” said Claiborne, who had LSU’s other interception, the one that set up a field goal. “That’s all I’ve got to say about that. You come out and you prepare hard and play like we did tonight, and you come out on top.”
The Game of the Century it wasn’t, at least in the first half. Alabama missed three field goals. LSU was called for a pair of facemask penalties and Lee threw the first of his two interceptions. Both teams were flagged for silly penalties, such as substitution infractions and an offsides on Alabama that extended LSU’s only decent drive of the first two quarters.
With the defenses dominating, it became clear the game would come down to which team could take advantage of its rare opportunities.
Foster was wide right from 44 and 50 yards before Saban switched up kickers. The coach sent in Jeremy Shelley, his short kicking specialist, for a 49-yard try, but that didn’t work out so well, either. He drove it low — right into the outstretched hands of the LSU defender Bennie Logan.
Finally, the Tide drove it close enough to actually make one.
Trent Richardson slipped out of the background to haul in his second long pass completion of the first half, a 39-yarder down to the LSU 19. The next three plays produced only 2 yards, so Shelley trotted out again to a few nervous groans from the crowd. Those turned to cheers of relief when he knocked it through, giving Alabama the lead with just under 4 minutes left in the half.
It didn’t hold up.
Jordan Jefferson, who wound up taking most of the snap instead of Lee, guided the Tigers down the field, most notably on a 34-yard completion to Russell Shepard when Alabama botched its deep coverage and left only one guy to cover two receivers.
That gave LSU first-and-goal at the Alabama 8, its first serious scoring chance of the game. The Tide’s defense stiffened, even after being called for holding, and LSU came uncomfortably close to running off too much time.
Richardson, a Heisman Trophy candidate, had a solid game with 23 carries for 89 yards and five catches for 80 yards. It wasn’t enough. Jefferson did just enough, completing 6 of 10 passes for 67 yards and running 11 times for 43 yards.
Alabama no longer controls its own fate in the race to get to the title game.
LSU took care of that.
“Whoever the folks are who make those decisions will make those decisions based on the full body of work of every team in the country and choose which teams are the best,” Saban said. “I really can’t speculate on a hypothetical situation and it’s really not our focus right now, anyway.”