The SEC West’s path to Atlanta might’ve been decided in 26 seconds.
In this season’s “Game of The Century,” No. 2 LSU held off No. 3 Alabama 46-41, putting on an offensive clinic that stunned the Tuscaloosa audience Saturday. The Tigers snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide, doing so in the most unimaginable fashion.
Many felt LSU could (or would) win. The manner in which they achieved it was surprising. They went into Bryant-Denny Stadium and were instantly more explosive, more physical and better coached than Alabama. They took a 20-point lead at halftime and held off the Crimson Tide’s furious rally.
“When we got on the plane coming here, I felt like, you know what, we got it,” Tigers coach Ed Orgeron said. “We finally got the tools that we need, the players we need, we finally have the coaching staff we need to beat these guys.”
The Tigers’ quarterback – a position often LSU’s Achilles heel – asserted himself as the clear Heisman Trophy front-runner. Joe Burrow finished 31-of-39 passing for 393 yards and the three touchdowns. He was carried off the field by his teammates.
“That was pretty special,” Burrow said. “Having these guys embrace me the way they have. I’m just some quarterback from Ohio who came in last June. The way they’ve embraced me, it means a lot to me. The way the entire program and state have embraced me.”
When Alabama closed the gap to six points in the fourth quarter, Burrow put together his potential Heisman-winning drive. He stood strong in the pocket, absorbing hits and delivering completions. He even had a 15-yard dash on a third-and-5, setting up Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s touchdown on the next play.
“I enjoy getting hit sometimes,” Burrow said with a grin. “It makes me feel like a real football player instead of just a quarterback.”
It was their first score of the second half after almost squandering their enormous lead. The Crimson Tide marched down the field to score again, cutting the deficit to 39-34, and Burrow again responded promptly with a big-time drive. His 18-yard run on third down kept it going. Edwards-Helaire iced it with a score.
Alabama simply didn’t have enough time – and couldn’t get the one stop it needed – to overcome a horrific first half highlighted by a slew of errors that helped the Tigers to a 33-13 lead.
The floodgates hadn’t opened until just before intermission. LSU’s eye-popping advantage was helped by two touchdowns in a 26-second span. A six-point game had inflated into a blowout in a matter of a few plays. Ultimately, that spurt of time was the difference in a shootout.
For Alabama, the final minute of the first half was a blur. For LSU, it was a release of the past eight years’ disappointment and angst. The Tigers held a 19-13 lead and were driving before the most controversial play of the game worked in their favor, setting off a sequence that put the game out of reach.
Burrow found tight end Thaddeus Moss on a 16-yard completion that put LSU at Alabama’s 1-yard line. Moss stepped out of bounds but re-established himself before snagging the ball. On review, it appeared cornerback Trevon Diggs touched the ball before Moss reeled it in, allowing the catch to stand.
The Tigers scored with 26 seconds remaining, going up 26-13. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was intercepted by Patrick Queen on the Crimson Tide’s ensuing first play from scrimmage. A post-play personal foul put LSU at the 13 with 11 seconds left.
LSU only needed one more play: Burrow hit Edwards-Helaire in the end zone. A 19-13 game had suddenly become 33-13 at the break.
“We came out here and knew we were the better team,” said LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who had six catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. “We showed it tonight.”
The home crowd was silent, still trying to process those bizarre 26 seconds of game time. It’ll be 26 seconds often revisited when telling the distinguished story of these southern bluebloods’ rivalry. It was a sequence that extinguished eight years of misery; a chain of events that one rarely, if ever, has seen victimize Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
In the immediate future, those 26 seconds propelled LSU to a probable No. 1 ranking and put Alabama on the outside looking in. In the not-so-far-away future, perhaps those moments cemented Burrow’s Heisman bid and LSU’s first playoff berth.
“Obviously growing up, you watch the ceremony ... you grow up wanting to win that award,” Burrow said. “But when you get to college, you realize team success breeds all the individual awards. That’s all that’s ever mattered to me, winning games.”
The contest was a far cry from LSU-Alabama of yesteryear. The programs field explosive offensives that their past defensive-minded versions couldn’t have envisioned. The schools have always been loaded with NFL skill position talent, but the coaches – and first-round-worthy quarterbacks – brought these offenses to a new stratosphere.
LSU’s offensive renaissance starts with passing game coordinator Joe Brady, formerly of the Saints. He’s groomed Burrow into maybe the best quarterback in program lore.
Brady and Burrow turned LSU’s weakness into its greatest strength. The school that could never find its quarterback boasts the nation’s best. Their 46 points were the most Saban’s Tide has allowed.
“The bottom line is, especially in the first half, we didn’t play very well,” Saban bluntly said.
Tagovailoa engineers Alabama’s offense, which owns one of the deeper, more potent receiver groups in college football history. DeVonta Smith led the wideouts Saturday with seven catches for 213 yards, accounting for a sizable chunk of Tagovailoa’s 418 yards.
But Burrow outshined his counterpart, surpassing him in the SEC standings, Heisman race and, depending on who you ask, possibly the eyes of NFL scouts.
The first quarter was marked by Alabama mistakes. Tagovailoa’s non-contact fumble inside the 10 spoiled the Crimson Tide’s first drive. LSU put on an clinic afterward, with Burrow finding Chase on a 33-yard score.
Alabama was stopped on its next drive. Punter Ty Perine dropped the snap and couldn’t get his kick off, awarding LSU prime field position. Diggs intercepted Burrow, potentially negating the botched punt, but Alabama was penalized for having 12 men on the field. LSU added a field goal to make the score 10-0.
The Crimson Tide finally broke through when Jaylen Waddle, arguably the best returner in the country, took a kick back 77 yards for the team’s first score. LSU answered with another surgical drive, capped off with Burrow’s touchdown to Terrace Marshall (Cade York’s extra-point attempt was blocked).
Tagovailoa found DeVonta Smith open down the sideline – he blew past star freshman cornerback Derek Stingley – for a 64-yard score. Joseph Bulovas missed the extra point, making it a 16-13 score.
Alabama pushed in the third quarter, keeping Burrow quiet and assembling their own electric drive. Tagovailoa hit running back Najee Harris for a 15-yard touchdown for the only score of the quarter. Its next drive, which trickled into the fourth, was capped with Harris’ touchdown that pulled the Crimson Tide within six.
Burrow answered with the Tigers’ biggest drive of the season. His defense allowed another score, so he came back with another scoring drive.
LSU has the inside track to playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, likely against Georgia, in the SEC Championship game Dec. 7.
“We’re coming,” Orgeron said. “We’re coming. This won’t be the last time. We’re going to continue to make progress and bring a championship back to Louisiana.”
The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, need LSU to slip up twice while they win out. They no longer control their path to the playoff, though they made the final four – and won the championship – under the same circumstances two seasons ago.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.