“Reality. I don’t know about a dream, but this is reality.”
That was quarterback AJ McCarron’s response Saturday when asked about Les Miles calling Death Valley a place where opponents’ dreams go to die.
The reality is that No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) has all but locked up the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division and still controls its own destiny of making the BCS National Championship game in January.
The reality is that No. 5 LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) had its national championship dreams squashed by Alabama for the second year in a row.
The reality is that championship teams find a way to win.
The Crimson Tide needed all 60 minutes to escape Death Valley with a 21-17 victory over the Tigers. This game was a heavyweight slugfest, dominated by LSU for 58 minutes of play.
Alabama’s vaunted defense was gashed for more than 400 yards. LSU possessed the ball for nearly 40 of the 60 minutes. Zach Mettenberger shredded Alabama’s secondary for 298 yards and a touchdown. Everything fell into place for LSU to pull the upset. But just when it looked like Alabama was knocked out, the Tide gathered its footing for a standing eight count and had a Rocky-like comeback.
“I told our guys we would have to overcome a lot of adversity to win a game here,” head coach Nick Saban said.
Overcome they did. Alabama hadn’t trailed a game in the fourth quarter since the 2010 Iron Bowl. Each game has been essentially over by halftime this season, so there were questions of how McCarron and company would respond to adversity in a tough road environment.
Those questions were answered as Alabama went 72 yards in five plays for the go-ahead touchdown, giving McCarron his Heisman moment on a national stage.
“I just love moments like that,” McCarron said. “I like having the ball in pressure situations.”
McCarron led a surgical final drive and never let the pressure get to him. The junior found wide receiver Kevin Norwood for 18 yards on the first play, 15 yards on the second and 11 yards on the third. He went to him a fourth time, but the pass sailed out of the back of the end zone. The incomplete pass was a blessing in disguise.
LSU played soft zone coverage on first downs, but sent pressure on second and third downs for most of the game when Alabama was behind in the down and distance. Alabama countered with runs up the middle and quick passes.
So, when the offensive play can down the pipe line, every Alabama coach anticipated what the Tigers would call on defense.
“They blitzed,” Saban said. “When we called that play, everyone on the headset was saying, ‘I hope they pressure.’”
LSU predictably sent pressure with cornerback Jalen Mills, who didn’t get there in time. McCarron floated the ball over Mills’ head to running back T.J. Yeldon, who took care of the rest. Yeldon outran linebacker Kevin Minter, juked safety Craig Loston and crossed the goal line as a diving Barkevious Mingo fell to his feet.
Yeldon’s legend continues to grow at Alabama. He leads the team with 725 rushing yards and has eight total touchdowns. He finished with 104 total yards and a touchdown. After the fumble at the goal line on the exchange between him and McCarron, the duo bounced back to save the day for Alabama.
As Yeldon crossed the goal line, he took away the Tigers’ chance of making the national championship and gave Alabama fans even more reason to believe this team is built to repeat.
“I saw one guy coming towards him, but I’ll take T.J. one-on-one,” McCarron said. “That kid is a freak of nature, and I’ll take him one-on-one any day.”
A Tiger Stadium record of 93,374 screaming fans went from deafening to silent in a matter of seconds – all except a small pocket of crimson lovers that exploded as Alabama took the lead.
“I kept looking around, like is there a flag or something,” center Barrett Jones said. “It felt so unreal.”
Only it was real. Just as real as Alabama’s chances of making trips to Atlanta and Miami this postseason.
Alabama only needs a win over Texas A&M to officially clinch the SEC West and earn a spot in the SEC Championship game for the first time since 2009.
So, the reality is that this Alabama team has a serious chance of making some history of its own.