73-yard TD run saves the day
By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There was a certain anger Greg McElroy saw in the eyes of his star wide receiver.
LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson’s jawing got in the head of Julio Jones. Frustrated, the preseason All-American promised McElroy he’d do something about it.
The return message took 73 yards and 13 seconds to deliver.
Trailing by two in the fourth quarter, Jones ran a McElroy screen pass all 73 yards into the end zone and sent his team back to the SEC Championship Game with a West Division-clinching 24-15 win over No. 9 LSU.
Still with three games left on the regular schedule, Saturday’s win assured Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC West) another shot at No. 1 Florida in the Dec. 5 league title game in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Peterson was injured on the sideline when Jones provided the final momentum swing in a wild game that saw LSU’s starting quarterback and leading rusher also go down with injuries. Still, the Tigers (7-2, 4-2 SEC West) became the first opponent since Florida International in the second game of the season to snatch the lead from Alabama.
It was also a game that saw the third-ranked Tide briefly exchange its power running game for a spread-offense that occasionally featured five receivers and McElroy alone in the backfield. The rediscovered offensive balance thrust the unit to its most productive game, at least statistically, since mid-September. Its 452 yards were trumped only by the two touchdowns that equaled the offense’s total from the past three games combined.
No touchdown this season was any bigger than the 73-yarder Jones scored as only one Tiger defender touched him before taking off down the Alabama sideline. Offensive lineman Mike Johnson said it looked like Jones was high stepping into the end zone from his perspective.
“I just turned around and I was looking for yellow on the ground because this is too good to be true,” Johnson said.
Alabama’s defense then finished off Saban’s former employer by throwing some extra pressure at backup quarterback Jarrett Lee who replaced starter Jordan Jefferson following a third-quarter injury. In the two drives after Jones’ go-ahead touchdown, he completed just 1-of-5 passes, was sacked twice by Marcell Dareus, hurried once and intercepted by Robby Green on his final throw of the game.
The other sack Alabama notched came on a play that ended Jefferson’s afternoon. LSU’s sophomore quarterback was driven into the Bryant-Denny Stadium turf by linebacker Nico Johnson after flinging a pass to no one and drawing an intentional grounding penalty. Two drives later, starting running back Charles Scott left the game with an injury “more serious” than Jefferson’s, Tiger coach Les Miles said.
With the Tide defense living up to its stout reputation, it was the offense that enjoyed a return to the spotlight with a breakout game. Once maligned for inconsistent play, McElroy threw for 276 yards on 19-for-34 passing that included two touchdowns and an interception.
In spite of the extra passing, running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Mark Ingram was hardly lost in the shuffle. He ran 22 times for 144 yards while keying two important scoring drives.
Coming out of halftime trailing 7-3, Alabama drove straight down the field on the back of its power back. One catch and four Ingram runs accounted for 57 of the 81 yards Alabama marched on the first possession of the second half as the Tide threw a change up LSU’s direction. The 21-yard McElroy to Hanks touchdown pass that capped the eight-play drive gave the offense its first contribution to the scoreboard since the Oct. 17 win over South Carolina.
Another momentum swing, though, was still to come.
A 46-yard LSU punt on the following possession left Alabama pinned in at its 1-yard line. A play after Jones dropped a sure catch that would have provided room to breathe, a McElroy intentional grounding penalty in the end zone meant an Alabama safety and a shrinking lead.
It completely disappeared six Tiger plays later when they grabbed a 15-10 lead on an 8-yard touchdown run by backup running back Stevan Ridley.
The Alabama sideline never lost its focus in the face of the unfamiliar feeling of trailing an opponent.
“We’re really not supposed to look at the scoreboard,” Saban said. “We kept playing. We kept competing and made plays that we needed to make.”
Although not as dramatic as its 12-10 escape of Tennessee, Alabama teetered on the edge of disaster for the second straight game.
Both times it survived.
SEC and BCS title hopes in tact, Alabama has three weeks to fine-tune its act before the showdown in Atlanta. Although Saban said he’s far from ready to talk about the Gators, the defending champs surely hold a spot in the subconscious.
“That’s why we play,” McElroy. “We play for championships.”