- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Standing at the front of a cramped room filled with a throng of media members, LSU coach Les Miles gazed toward the back wall as he recalled two gut-wrenching plays that changed the complexion of Saturday night's game against top-ranked Alabama.
It appeared as though he was struggling with the images of a J.C. Copeland fumble at the goal line and an early snap that ricocheted off Zach Mettenberger before being scooped up by Crimson Tide linebacker Trey DePriest on back-to-back drives in the first quarter.
They happened in an instant but would linger for three more quarters, as LSU dropped its third straight to Alabama with a 38-17 loss inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The scoreboard showed a 21-point defeat, and those two plays easily could have cost the Tigers an early double-digit lead against the No. 1 team in the nation.
"Here we are, frankly going off left tackle here to take the lead 7-0," Miles said of Copeland's careless fumble on second and goal at Alabama's 3 with more than 8 minutes remaining in the first quarter.
LSU coaches were seen tossing their headsets after Copeland's turnover. Maybe it was because the miscue came on only his 13th carry of the season, or because star back Jeremy Hill wasn't in the game. Nevertheless, it played out like the same old story with this year's LSU team. Mistakes have crippled it in big games, leaving so many questions about what this squad could and should look like right now.
In the loss to Georgia, an Odell Beckham Jr. fumble on a punt return led to a Georgia touchdown that gave the Bulldogs a late third-quarter lead. Three weeks ago, Mettenberger dug his team into a major hole with three first-half interceptions at Ole Miss. Both games ended in LSU losses.
"Going back to every loss we've had this season, the turnovers have just killed us," said Hill, who ran for a season-low 42 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. "You take the turnovers away from us this season, and who knows what our record would be right now?"
On paper, Saturday's loss knocked 13th-ranked LSU to 7-3 on the season and 3-3 in SEC play. But when you look closer, it's tough to say where this team might be without those costly errors. Saturday night clearly showed that LSU can play with the best. The Tigers held Alabama to just 372 yards, grabbed the lead once and tied the game once before the Crimson Tide broke things open with a 14-point fourth quarter.
If Copeland doesn't fumble, the Tigers go up seven and put a damper on Alabama's raucous crowd. If Mettenberger and center Elliott Porter don't botch the exchange a drive later, Alabama isn't put in great position to take a 3-0 lead with Cade Foster's 41-yard field goal.
That's a 10-point swing that eventually changed everything.
"When you play in games like this, you just can't turn the ball over," receiver Jarvis Landry said. "We put ourselves into bad position.
"When you turn the ball over ... it's hard to beat a team like Alabama."
What made things that much more frustrating for the Tigers was the defense's inability to get off of the field. Alabama owned nearly 34 minutes of the clock, leaving LSU's potent offense to stew on the sideline. As badly as that unit wanted to make up for its early mistakes, it had to suffer through watching the Tide work like an efficient, mistake-free football team should.
It didn't help that penalties and missed tackles added to the offense's stay on the sideline. The defense's play was frustrating, but Landry showed his displeasure for calls that only added to his irritation.
"It was kind of sad and made me kind of mad looking at it from the sideline," Landry said. "There were a lot of calls toward Alabama's favor that were kind of questionable and kept their drives alive."
Landry can scoff at the officiating and vent about the defense's struggles, but the early offensive mistakes cost this team. The Tigers rebounded to an extent, but you could feel the deflation after both fumbles. This could have been a special night for LSU, but devastating turnovers only fueled Alabama and left the Tigers once again asking, "What if?"
"You can't turn the ball over," Hill said. "If we don't turn the ball over, there's no telling what this team could do."
4hEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf