- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
There was nothing pretty about it. Set the final drive aside and LSU was the better team on Saturday night in Death Valley. For 58 minutes, Alabama didn't play like the No. 1 team in the country. The turnaround came in the nick of time -- about two minutes for those counting at home.
But AJ McCarron's masterful drive down the field for the game-winning touchdown can't overshadow all. It can't overshadow the litany of three-and-outs on offense, the missed tackles on defense and the poor execution all around.
"I don't think we played our best game" coach Nick Saban said. "I think (LSU) played an outstanding game."
Saban called what happened adversity. He noted that the defense simply couldn't get off the field on third down. The secondary whiffed and the front seven let tackles for loss go by the wayside and turn into first downs. He pointed out that the offense couldn't keep the ball -- and when it did, a fumble on the handoff from McCarron to T.J. Yeldon gave it right back.
The sixth-year coach of the Crimson Tide said there are two ways to take what happened in Baton Rouge, La. If Alabama takes it positively, it might be on to Miami and a shot at the national title. If it takes it negatively, Alabama might be going elsewhere in January, some place ending in disappointment whether it's a win or loss at the final gun.
Truth be told, not everything is going to go the Tide's way, though it looked that way for most of the season. UA's average margin of victory was enough to make a pious man blush. The total dominance revealed itself in the way the Tide cruised to victory in the second half of every game before LSU.
"We've faced adversity before, but nothing like this," UA safety Robert Lester said after the game. He was part of a secondary that allowed Zach Mettenberger, the previously goatish quarterback of the Tigers, to look like an NFL prospect. Mettenberger set career highs for attempts, completions and passing yards in the loss against Alabama.
"There are a lot of things we could have done better," Lester said. "There were a lot of missed assignments that we had. But when you miss an assignment or mess up on a play, you want to have a short memory."
LSU's anemic receiver corps rose from the dead, thanks to a number of missed assignments on defense. Dee Milliner, Alabama's leading cornerback and the most sure-handed tackler in the back end of the defense, failed to wrap up a receiver in the third quarter on a drive that led to the first of two LSU touchdowns.
"Their skill guys were making great plays," Milliner said. "They did some formations that we hadn't seen yet. Mettenberger made some great plays. The receivers got open and made great plays on the ball."
Saban did the math to explain just how bad it got, citing a stretch of seven straight third-down conversions of 5 yards or longer.
The defense wasn't spectacular, but then again, neither was the offense. For most of the second half, McCarron and Co. didn't do much to help the defense. Prior to the Tide's game-winning touchdown, Alabama went three-and-out on four of six drives. McCarron completed just one of seven passes before he started finding Kevin Norwood open on the edge late in the game.
"I don't feel like we could have played worse in the second half," UA center Barrett Jones said. "We didn't execute anything until the last 50 seconds of the game."
But like his coach, McCarron chalked it all up to adversity.
"Everything's not always going to go your way," he said.
"We've got to bounce back. ... Enjoy this one tonight and come back to work Monday."
Saban said his team can't be satisfied for long. The 24-hour rule was in place after the game. By now, recovery mode is in full effect.
The offense has its work cut out for it as No. 16 Texas A&M and its high-powered offense come to town in a few days. Keeping up with Johnny Manziel will be difficult -- especially if the defense can't find a way to play better at home.
Saban told his players that they would "have to keep punching until they knocked them out" in Death Valley. The Tide did that, and took a few punches to the gut themselves.
Now, the fight continues on to Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Crimson Tide will be bruised when they starts practice on Monday, but the pain should be bittersweet, a reminder that their No. 1 status is vulnerable if the mistakes made against LSU aren't corrected.
"They can focus on the things they didn't do and take the next challenge and continue to improve and be ready to play next week and prepare and practice next week, or they can say, 'We're satisfied with ourselves for what we did,' " Saban said.
If Alabama wants to make it to the national championship, there's only one way to go, and it's not the latter.
1dSam Khan Jr.