BATON ROUGE, La.--Dreams, they go to die in Death Valley, some would say.
After not having truly faced adversity all season, the Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0 SEC) found themselves on the brink, down 17-14 with 94 seconds to play. But A.J. McCarron stared a deadly Tigers' defense in the face and ran the two-minute drill of his life.
LSU (7-2, 3-2) had just missed a 45-yard field goal attempt to all-but seal the upset. It was Alabama ball. Heading into that possession, McCarron was 0-for-5 in the second half. But he came through in put up or shut up time.
Five plays. Seventy-two yards. Touchdown Alabama.
Starting from his own 28, McCarron found Kevin Norwood for three quick passes to move the Tide to the Tigers' 28. And, after an incompletion, the junior quarterback found true freshman running back T.J. Yeldon, who had a red-zone fumble in the third quarter that turned momentum in LSU's favor, on a 28-yard screen pass to save the season.
Tears streamed down McCarron's face. In fact he looked to be balling his eyes out on the Alabama bench after leading a drive that will go down in program history as one of the greatest.
"It was a surreal feeling, watching him," said center Barrett Jones. "I was looking around for flags. I didn't want to get too excited until I was sure."
That moment silenced over 90,000 LSU fans. The home team's 22-game winning streak in Death Valley was dead.
"I've never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity," said hoarse Nick Saban after the game.
Alabama's greatest disadvantage has been its seemingly weak schedule. They don't play anybody, they've never faced adversity, critics have said. Well, they faced it Saturday.
It started two hours before game time when Saban and his security team walked around his old stomping grounds. The LSU student section was already filled and once they saw him, chanted profanities that lingered through the night. The fans were so ruthless that Saban couldn't even leave the stadium right after the post-game interviews. He had to wait out the storm.
Then came kickoff and the crowd was roaring. The physicality of this matchup was not one Alabama had faced all season. Zach Mettenberger was brilliant and exposed Alabama's secondary, going 24-of-35 for 298 yards and a touchdown without any turnovers. The Tigers took an early lead and the Tide struggled on both sides of the ball.
But several costly mistakes by LSU head coach Les Miles helped the Tide out. In the second quarter, the Mad Hatter called for a fake field goal on fourth-and-12, putting the ball in the hands of kicker Drew Alleman. He was smothered for a two-yard loss.
On the next possession, Miles had Alleman attempt a 54-yard field goal, which came up way short and put the ball in McCarron's hands for the last 1:08 of the half.
Alabama ran the two-minute like clockwork then, too. With 11 seconds to spare, McCarron found the end zone on a nine-yard rush to put his team up 14-3 heading into the locker room.
In the second half, Miles went for and failed on a fourth-and-1 at the Alabama-24 and then Alleman missed a 45-yard field goal at the end, which was followed by McCarron's epic game-winning drive. So Miles was 0-4 on crucial fourth-down decisions in the most important game of the season.
Other than his perfectly executed two-minute drills that the team practices every Thursday, McCarron didn't look like a Heisman Trophy candidate Saturday with his 14-of-27 for 165 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing, one passing) stat line. But he came through when it mattered the most.
McCarron's favorite saying, which he literally quotes every week, comes from Saban: "Just takes what the defense gives you and eventually they'll give you the game."
And that's exactly what happened.
This past week, the Tide watched a video of the U.S. Navy SEALS mission to get Osama bin Laden. Saban hoped it would show them how to adapt when things go awry. He had warned his team that they would face adversity on this road trip and dealing with it would be the key to the game.
"We talked about the preparation and the adaptability they had to have when things went sideways," Saban said, citing the point in the mission when the helicopter didn't land like it was supposed to. "They had been trained to be adaptable and were told what to do in case something like that happened. So they were still successful, and I think there was a lot of that out there today for us."
On that final drive, McCarron was calm and didn't feel the pressure. It was just another Thursday in the confines of the Alabama practice facilities.
"He was locked in," said running back Eddie Lacy. "I mean, he's always locked in every game, but there was something different this time on this drive."
After Alleman missed that field goal, McCarron rallied his troops.
"I looked at everybody on the sideline and I said, ‘We do this every Thursday. It's not any different, it doesn't matter how many people are in the stands. The field is still 100 yards long. We still gotta go the length of the field and we gotta put the ball in the end zone,'" he said. "And my O-line looked at me and said, ‘Let's do it.'"
From start to finish, the game had all the trimmings of a national championship—celebrities on the sidelines (Spike Lee, Mark Ingram), the craziest fan base in the loudest stadium on Earth on their A game, and two of the most physical teams in the country going down to the wire with everything at stake.
For a brief moment, it looked like a trip to Miami in January was a dream that would be gobbled up by some revenge-seeking Tigers. But instead, McCarron and Alabama made history.
"That last drive was something that I'll never forget," Saban said.
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