TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - The only way the game between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama could have exceeded the unprecedented expectations was to go into overtime.
So naturally, that’s exactly what happened in the chilly wind Saturday night in rocking Bryant-Denny Stadium. Drew Alleman kicked a 25-yard field goal in the first extra period to give the Tigers a 9-6 victory that puts them all alone in the driver’s seat to win the Southeastern Conference West Division and perhaps a whole lot more.
The first-ever SEC regular-season matchup between the top two ranked teams in the country attracted a two-week buildup that resembled the lead-up to a Super Bowl. The Tigers and the Crimson Tide didn’t disappoint and followed the script practically to the letter.
Two old-fashioned, physical defenses and power-running offenses slugged it out like two heavyweight fighters for 3-1/2 hours before LSU took the lead for the only time all night when Alleman’s kick split the uprights, setting off a wild celebration on the visitor’s sideline as a sea of fans dressed in red went silent.
“Our defense was tremendous tonight,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “It was the difference in the game.”
That, and the fact that Alleman was 3-for-3 on field goals and Alabama’s kickers were 2-for-6.
The defenses were supposed to dictate how the game went, and they did just that. Alabama leads the country in scoring defense (6.8 points per game) and pretty much stayed on track, but LSU one-upped it.
The Tigers had thrived on turnovers, taking the ball away 18 times and giving it away just three times, none in the past five games. The Tide defense took it away twice, but the Tigers negated that with two takeaways of their own.
Alabama running back Trent Richardson, the leading rusher in the SEC and a prime Heisman Trophy contender, managed just 89 yards on 23 carries, but added 80 yards on five receptions.
“Trent did a great job, but we were a little inconsistent,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “(The Tigers) ran the ball a little better than us.”
LSU had 148 rushing yards on 41 carries (3.6), and Alabama had 96 yards on 32 carries (3.1).
The Tigers had just 91 passing yards, but for the second time this season, beat a top-five team without passing for 100 yards. They had 98 in a 40-27 victory over preseason No. 3 Oregon in the season opener.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Tide linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. “We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. It just came down to who executed on the chances that they had. They did.”
The Tigers won the toss to start the overtime and chose to play defense, which was fitting in a game win which neither offense ever crossed the goal line.
AJ McCarron’s attempted middle screen to Richardson fell incomplete, and the Tide got a 5-yard penalty for illegal substitution. McCarron missed Richardson on a pass up the sideline, and on third down he was sacked by Sam Montgomery. That led to Cade Foster’s 52-yard field goal attempt, which was wide left and short.
On the ensuing possession Spencer Ware rushed for 3 yards before Michael Ford got free around the left corner for a 15-yard gain.
A premature celebration broke out on the LSU sideline as Ford sprinted into the end zone, but he had stepped out of bounds at the 7. Kenny Hilliard ran for no gain and Ware lost a yard before Alleman came in on third down, and after an Alabama timeout, made the kick.
“Obviously, in overtime your mettle is tested the most on the key plays,” Miles said. “Victory is decided in s short amount of time at that point, and we came to play toward the end.”
The Tigers (9-0, 6-0 SEC) host Western Kentucky in a non-conference game next week before finishing the regular season with conference games at Ole Miss and at home against Arkansas. Alabama (8-1, 5-1) plays at Mississippi State next week and finishes with a home game against non-conference foe Georgia Southern and at Auburn.
“This was not the biggest game in the history of the world, just so you know,” Miles said. “These next games, those games are much more important.”
The second half of this one began with the score tied at 3, but a pass from LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee to Deangelo Peterson hung in the air long enough for All-America safety Mark Barron to come to the sideline in front of the Tigers bench and make the interception. He returned to the Tigers 25, but an illegal block penalty on the runback pushed the ball back to the 35.
The LSU defense stiffened as McCarron threw an incompletion, Richardson was stopped for 1 yard, and McCarron’s short pass to Marquis Maze gained just 5 yards. Foster’s 46-yard field goal gave the Tide a 6-3 lead.
The Tigers offense continued to struggle, but the defense gave it a lift when cornerback Morris Claiborne intercepted McCarron at the Bama 48 and sprinted up the sideline to the 15.
Then it was the Tide’s turn to stiffen. Ware and quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who took the majority of the snaps in part because Lee threw two interceptions, one more than he had coming in, both rushed for no gain before Jefferson was forced to scramble for just 2 yards. Alleman’s 30-yard field goal tied the score at 6 with 14:13 left in the game.
McCarron’s 17-yard completion to Maze and Richardson’s 24-yard run helped put Bama back in scoring range at the LSU 28. The Tide lined up with Maze in the Wildcat formation and went for a big play - perhaps the one big play that could decide the game - as Maze lofted the ball toward tight end Michael Williams as he neared the goal line.
Williams got his hands on the ball, but so did safety Eric Reid, who wrestled it away for an interception at the 1, which was upheld after a replay review.
The defenses continued to dictate things into the overtime, where Alleman proved to be the difference.
“This is a team of great character with a want to win - they came in here with that attitude,” Miles said. “Congratulations to Alabama. What a great game they played, what a tremendously talented team they have, and Coach Saban is doing a great job there. I would be honored to face that team again.”
Alabama won the coin toss at the start of the game and showed confidence in its offense by choosing to receive, and it looked like the confidence was justified.
After Maze returned the kickoff to the 30, Richardson ran around left end of a gain of 18 yards. On the next play, the Tigers missed an assignment as Richardson, perhaps the most attention-getting ball carrier in the country, was left alone in the left flat and caught a pass from McCarron for a 22-yard gain.
LSU ganged up on Richardson on the next play for a 5-yard loss, and McCarron completions of 8 yards to Brad Smelley and zero yards to Richardson as the drive stalled. The march yielded no points as Foster was wide right on a 44-yard field goal.
The Tigers stalled just across midfield, and Brad Wing’s punt was downed at the Tide 5. LSU put Bama in a third-and-9 situation, but McCarron threw out of his end zone and zipped a 19-yard completion to Maze and a facemask penalty on Tharold Simon gave Bama the ball at the 40.
McCarron’s 8-yard completion to Maze and a 20-yard run by former Dutchtown High star Eddie Lacy pushed the ball to the Tigers 23. Reid, a high-school teammate of Lacy, dropped him for a 6-yard loss and the Tide couldn’t overcome that. Foster was wide right from 50 yards.
On third down, Lee dropped a snap in the shotgun, picked the ball up and rushed a throw upfield that went right to safety Robert Lester for an interception at the Tide 47. It was LSU’s first turnover since a Lee interception in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State in the third game of the season. That ended a streak of 20 consecutive quarters without a turnover.
Richardson’s 10-yard run helped Bama get into field goal range for the third time in three possessions. The Tide changed kickers, sending in Jeremy Shelley to try a 49-yarder, but Bennie Logan deflected it at the line of scrimmage.
Reid caught the ball in the air and ran 26 yards to the Bama 48, giving the Tigers their best field position to start a possession.
They went with a new backfield with Jefferson, Hilliard at fullback, and Ford at halfback. A 6-yard run by Ford, then runs of 3 and 1 yard by Ware yielded a first down, but an illegal shift on tight end Chase Clement stymied the possession.
Another Wing punt backed up the Tide to its 4, but a 12-yard run by Richardson and a facemask penalty on Logan helped move Bama out to its 36. On third-and-4 from the 42, LSU lost track of Richardson again and McCarron hit him with a swing pass that gained 39 yards to the Tigers 19.
The Tide finally made a field goal as Shelley was true from 34 yards for a 3-0 Tide lead with 3:35 left in the second quarter.
That marked the first time this season that an LSU opponent scored before the Tigers did, and put them in catch-up position for just the second time this season.
But just as it did the previous time - in the second quarter of the season opener against Oregon, LSU erased the deficit on its next possession. Two runs by Ford netted 23 yards and a 34-yard completion from Jefferson to Russell Shepard moved the Tigers to the Tide 8.
Ford got halfway to the end zone on first down, then Jefferson’s pass barely eluded Rueben Randle’s fingertips in the end zone.
Jefferson missed Randle on third down, but Dre Kirkpatrick was called for defensive holding, giving LSU a first-and-goal at the 2. Jefferson couldn’t find a receiver and threw the ball out of the end zone before Ware was stopped for no gain and the Tigers called timeout with two seconds left in the half.
Alleman’s 19-yard field goal tied the score at 3 at halftime as he ended the first half the way he would end the overtime - with a clutch field goal on the final play.
“It was a great battle tonight,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. “We gave the fans and the world a good show tonight.”