TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — And maybe that’s why Alabama is No. 1 and LSU is still searching for a way back into the discussion.
The Tigers gave it their best shot Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium, outplayed the Tide for long stretches, let them know they were in a game, but in the end had little to show for it.
The Tigers certainly had their chances.
But the Tide scored the game’s final three touchdowns after LSU forged a tied score to open the second half and Bama ground out a 38-17 victory over the Tigers.
“I’m not prepared for this,” LSU head coach Les Miles said afterward. “This kind of felt like we played better (than the final score).”
The Tide (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) will remain No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings and seem to be on a collision course with their fourth national championship in five years.
The Tigers’ effort — Miles’ famous “want” — was there.
But LSU (7-3, 3-3) was left to ponder missed early opportunities and 73 yards in penalties, including four personal fouls that always seemed to push Alabama along drives that weren’t doing badly on their own.
“I believe so,” LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said when asked if the final score was misleading. “You could look at the score and think one thing, but if you watched the game you know that if we didn’t turn the ball over and had made smarter decisions in the third and fourth quarter it would be a ballgame.”
Mettenberger did all he could, completing 16 of 23 passes for 241 yards, the biggest reason the Tigers were able to convert on 7 of 12 third downs.
But for all the early success maybe Mettenberger’s end summed up the Tigers — he was sacked three consecutive times, the final time in fourth-and-27 desperation mode.
“We had a good game plan going,” Mettenberger said. “We just weren’t able to execute it.”
Highlighting the frustration, LSU’s first drive ended with a lost fumble from point-blank range and the Tigers’ next possession set up Bama’s first three points on a fumbled snap.
“No matter how you cut it, it’s seven for us and three for them,” Miles said. “That’s a 10-point swing. I would certainly like to be up seven and take the ball at that point forward. I could have been a different type game.”
But once Alabama got the lead for good, the Tide dominated.
“We probably played our best half of football,” Bama coach Nick Saban said. “It wasn’t perfect and we didn’t play great in the first half, but there was a lot of character out there in the second half to control the line of scrimmage the way we did on offense.”
Alabama rushed for 179 of its 193 yards in the second half, with T.J. Yeldon going for 133 and adding a 1-yard scoring run that put the Tide up 31-17.
Alabama even got the better of the trickery — the game’s key play might have been the fake punt that Saban called after the Tigers tied the score to open the third quarter and thought they had stopped the Tide at midfield facing fourth-and-2.
But, after a timeout, Saban pulled the trigger on the fake, with Jarrick Williams picking up 6 yards.
The Tide went on to take the lead for good, 24-17, on Yeldon’s 4-yard run and never really looked back.
Whatever hope LSU had disappeared when Odell Beckham returned the ensuing kickoff 82 yards to the Tide 18 — and Bama promptly stuffed the Tigers in their tracks.
LSU, which outgained the Tide 232-193 in the first half, managed 52 yards in the second, only somewhat skewed by the Tigers losing 26 yards on the final three snaps.
It began much more encouragingly for the Tigers — but with perhaps twice the frustration.
LSU’s opening possession marched 83 yards — and ended with zilch when fullback J.C. Copeland was stripped of the ball on what appeared to be destined for a 3-yard scoring run on first-and-goal.
Moments later, Mettenberger wasn’t ready for a snap from the shotgun formation and another fumble gave the Tide the ball at the LSU 27, setting up a Cade Foster field goal for the first points of the game.
“You can’t turn the ball over,” Miles said. “It cost us a terrible start. We overcame it and go to a tie, and we get to them to fourth down (before the fake punt). Quality defense by Bama and the way they ran the football decided the game.”
“If it wasn’t for the turnovers, I think they would have scored a lot more points and the game might have been different,” Saban said.
But they didn’t.