BATON ROUGE, La. — Nick Saban, the Alabama coach, warned his team that things could detour down an unpleasant path here Saturday night. There would be a roaring crowd in the place called Death Valley, and LSU, the only team in the SEC that can match No. 1 Alabama in size and speed and NFL prospects, would be vengeful after what happened in the national championship game last January. Saban preached about things going “sideways’’ and that is exactly what happened.
In front of a record crowd of 93,374, the Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0) hardly looked the part of the top team in the country. They lost two fumbles, one at the LSU 10-yard line in the second half, and they missed tackle after tackle. Saban clapped his hands after each mistake and implored his team to keep playing.
Trailing, 17-14, with 1:34 to play, the first time in two seasons they had trailed after halftime, the defending national champions zipped 72 yards in five plays for the winning touchdown to steal a 21-17 victory over No. 5 LSU (7-2, 3-2) and flatten the emotions of the throng.
Quarterback AJ McCarron flipped a screen pass to running back T.J. Yeldon, who had fumbled at the LSU 10 earlier in the second half, and the freshman took it 28 yards for the winning score with 51 seconds to play to rescue the Crimson Tide.
“We showed the players this week the SEAL team going in and getting Bin Laden and the preparation and the adaptability they had to have when things went sideways and the helicopter didn’t land the way it was supposed to,’’ Saban said. “There was a lot of that out there today for us.’’
LSU controlled the ball for 39 minutes, 15 seconds to Alabama’s 20:45. The Tigers had 435 yards of offense against the top-ranked defense in college football.
LSU coach Les Miles lamented some of his failed calls in the game, which included an onsides kick that didn’t work, a fake field goal, and going for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal in the second half. The Tigers did not play timidly in trying to erase the stench of the 21-0 loss to Alabama in last season’s BCS title game.
Alabama led, 14-3, in the third quarter when LSU decided it was not going away. The Tigers had not scored a touchdown in 10 quarters against the Crimson Tide, which included a 9-6 regular-season win in 2011 and the national championship game.
The Tigers drove 58 yards in 13 plays. They rammed the ball up inside the Alabama defense on part of the drive with 235-pound freshman running back Jeremy Hill, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed all three of his passes on the drive.
Hill finished the march by ramming in from the 1 with 3:35 left in the third quarter.
The Tigers took the lead, 17-14, with 12:58 left in the game when Mettenberger threw 14 yards to Jarvis Landry. The crowd was giddy. LSU players were ecstatic on the sideline. Then Alabama caught fire just in time.
McCarron had been having a dreadful game, particularly on third down. With 8:41 left, Alabama had converted just 1 of 8 third-down chances.
“We couldn’t have played any worse in the second half,’’ said center Barrett Jones.
The solution on the final drive was not to get to third down. After LSU’s Drew Alleman missed a 45-yard field goal attempt, Alabama took over on its 28 with 1:34 to play and McCarron completed three straight first-down passes for 18, 15, and 11 yards.
He missed on the next first-down pass, but on second down from the LSU 28, the Tigers were caught in a blitz and McCarron flipped a pass to Yeldon, who went the distance.
“When we called it, everybody was saying on the headset, I hope they pressure,’’ Saban said.
The rest of college football will have to endure the prospect of another national championship for the SEC for at least another week. Alabama hosts Texas A&M next weekend and then plays Western Carolina and Auburn in its bid to win back-to-back national titles.