Unscripted game spawns unlikely stars
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Of all the predictions spewed forth as No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama spent two weeks preparing for one another, the one that resonated in the aftermath of the Tigers' 9-6 overtime victory over the Crimson Tide is the one that claimed a big play would break open a close game.
LSU made big plays, all right. It's just that none of them ended with a striped shirt raising his arms to signal a touchdown. This was a game that never broke open.
From the opening kickoff to LSU kicker's Drew Alleman's 25-yard chip shot that finished the game in the first overtime, 101,821 in Bryant-Denny Stadium gave witness to a war of attrition. Exhilaration made a cameo appearance here and there, but for the most part, LSU and Alabama maintained all the tension of a courtroom watching the jury file in with a verdict.
"It surely didn't go by script," LSU coach Les Miles said, "neither theirs nor ours."
Someone asked him when it became apparent that the game wouldn't go by script.
"About the first series," Miles said with a perfect deadpan delivery. In fact, for most of the first half it looked as if neither team would get into the red zone, much less score a touchdown. So much for Miles' pregame vision that his Tigers would put up at least 35 points.
"We have a disease called preparation," Miles said. "As soon as you prepare, you feel like you got it right and you feel very confident about it. It's a feel that this thing is going to go right. 'We got the right plan.' I don't know that we did, now that I look back. Or maybe it was the right plan but it was the wrong defense we were playing against."
If you listen to Miles long enough, he begins to make sense. Both of these teams were the wrong defense to play against. In the third quarter, each team converted a turnover deep in the other's territory into only a field goal. The scoring drives: Alabama, four plays, 6 yards; LSU, four plays, 2 yards.
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"I made one in high school, the state championship, a game winner," Alleman said, who went to Lafayette (La.) Acadiana High. "This is way bigger. Much sweeter."
In a game like this, in which first downs came hard and touchdowns never came, it figured that the play that turned the Tide was a 73-yard punt by an Aussie punter. With the score tied 6-6 and LSU punting from its 9-yard line, Tigers freshman Brad Wing kicked a line drive that sailed over Marquis Maze's head and rolled dead at the Alabama 18 with 9:00 to play. The Tide didn't cross midfield again.
"I don't know what happened. I'm definitely not complaining that he didn't catch it," Wing said. "It was a drive kick, low hang time. I was just trying to get it back as far as I could. But once it came off the foot, I knew I hit it pretty well."
Wing grew up playing Australian rules football, so he arrived in the States with an uncanny ability to aim and measure his punts. Yet he has been immersed in American football long enough to freely describe kickers and punters as "head cases." How long had he been in this country before he figured that out?
"A couple of hours," Wing said, to much laughter. "No, my coaches joke around with it. I hear it all the time. Kickers are head cases. Kickers are funny people. Drew is a testament to that. He's the funniest guy I know. He did great. We have all the faith in him. I don't think he's a head case. I think he's the exception to the rule."
Wing knows enough about punting to understand the nature of it.
"My job is a difficult one," Wing said. "You're only out on the field when things don't go right. But I'm happy to go out there and have the offense's back and set the defenses up for a great field to stop them."
Alleman and Wing were exceptions Saturday night. In a showdown between the two best teams in the game, between two defenses that refused to yield, LSU exploited its edge in the kicking game to eke out a victory.
When Alabama decides to lose in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Crimson Tide do it in a manner as painful and self-flagellating as possible. A year ago, the Tide surrendered a 24-0 lead to Auburn, allowing its archrival to continue its march to the BCS championship.
On Saturday night, Alabama left one opportunity too many unrealized against a team that is its equal. You can comb through the history books day and night for the next six months and not find an offense that scored two field goals and punted only twice, as the Tide did.
Interceptions stopped two drives, the second of which was thrown out of the Wildcat by Maze, a high school quarterback. Maze's floating pass resembled a dial-up connection in a 4G world. By the time it reached tight end Michael Williams, free safety Eric Reid had closed the gap between them. Still, that doesn't explain how Williams, a 6-foot-6, 269-pound tight end, lost a midair wrestling match for the pass with the 6-2, 208-pound Reid.
LSU made big plays, none of them touchdowns. The Tigers continue down the road to the BCS championship. Alabama is standing on the side of the road, its thumb out, looking for help to get back in the race.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.