BATON ROUGE, La. — Walking slow and limping slightly, Greg McElroy made a quiet, solemn exit from Tiger Stadium.
His eyes were glazed. No tears, but his expressionless stare told the tale.
There will be no national championship repeat in his final season at Alabama. The SEC championship game is more than a long shot and the Iron Bowl won’t have the same stakes as everyone anticipated.
Not after Saturday.
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Not after LSU and its gambling coach yanked another one out of the hat, sending the Crimson Tide back to Tuscaloosa wondering what went wrong in the 24-21 loss that recalculated the rest of the season.
“They did a couple things that threw us off a little bit,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after his slow stroll to the locker room included a gauntlet of unpleasantries from the crowd. “We didn’t stop the run as well in the second half as we did in the first half. The couple big plays that they hit on us were really critical and really made the difference in the game.”
No. 10 LSU (8-1, 5-1 SEC) rolled up 186 of its 433 yards on three crucial second-half plays that swayed the game after gaining just 23 yards in the first quarter and 49 through five possessions. LSU coach Les Miles opened his bag of tricks to include a fake punt and a risky reverse on fourth down that set up the winning touchdown.
The Tigers’ passing game, ranked last in the SEC, also shined in key spots as Jordan Jefferson joined South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia as previously ridiculed quarterbacks who came up big in wins over the No. 6 Tide (7-2, 4-2 SEC) this year.
His coach was not about to downplay the meaning of Saturday’s win.
“I’m very thankful that I live in a country and have a job that allows me to experience some of the really positive things in our lifetime,” Miles said. “College football was celebrated today. That was two quality football teams slugging, start to finish, hard-nosed, clean, violent, competitive football and how wonderful is it?”
The Tigers then appeared to have the win sealed after forcing a McElroy fumble two plays after Stevan Ridley’s 1-yard touchdown that put the Tigers up 21-14 with 8:13 to play. Josh Jasper’s 39-yard field goal made it a two-possession game with 5:34 to play, but that left McElroy and his corps of receivers a sliver of hope.
Their nine-play 74-yard drive that took just 2:04 opened the door even farther when combined with the big stops on the following two LSU running plays.
Then Miles gambled again, and, again, he won. Instead of running on third down and settling for a punt, he elected to have Jarrett Lee throw, and Lee found wide-open Reuben Randle for a 47-yard that kept the hot Tide offense on the sideline long enough for the hook-and-ladder to be the only hope as time ran out.
Realistically, the game turned on the first of the game-altering plays that saw Jefferson hit Randle on a 75-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter. Saban said a blown assignment allowed Randle to find a clearing and Jefferson the passing lane.
The Tide, then answered back with its second 10-plus-play touchdown drive, capped by Mark Ingram’s 5-yard touchdown run. He finished with 97 yards on 21 carries.
LSU capitalized on a big play that foreshadowed a bigger one to come. Following a few key blocks, wide receivers Russell Sheppard’s 41-yard end-around set up another Jasper field goal that put the Tigers in position as the sun began to set on Baton Rouge.
And when the ball came back to LSU, Miles pulled out his riskiest move of the day. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Alabama 26, Ridley took the handoff then handed off to tight end DeAngelo Peterson, who ran 23 yards to the 3. Ridley then ran it in from the 1.. Jefferson’s 2-point conversion pass to Randle put the hosts up 21-14 in front of a mostly jubilant crowd of 92,969 that was the fourth-largest in stadium history.
“All year, we’ve been sputtering and flat,” Ridley said. “ It was time for us to step up. It was time for us to play football.”
With that, McElroy was left to ponder what could have been Saturday. He didn’t play a bad game, completing 21-of-34 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns.
But a loss is a loss.
And the Crimson Tide’s postgame locker room reflected that perspective, the normally talkative McElroy said in a few short words.
“It’s, it’s not a fun place to be,” he said quietly.