Alabama shows its mettle in crunch time

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t sure he has ever been prouder of a football team.

Saban’s senior center, Barrett Jones, isn’t sure he has ever seen his coach happier after a football game.

“He gave me a big, old bear hug,” Jones beamed. “This is one we’ll all remember forever.”

As well they should.

Alabama’s thrilling come-from-behind 21-17 victory over LSU on Saturday night answered emphatically what everybody around college football has wanted to know about the Crimson Tide.

How would they respond when they finally found themselves in a close game and with their backs to the wall?

After all, Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) had trailed for all of 15 seconds this season, and nobody had come within 19 points of the Crimson Tide. They’d won their previous eight games by an average margin of 32.5 points.

“We knew a game like this was coming somewhere along the way, and we were going to be ready for it,” Alabama senior safety Robert Lester said. “We pride ourselves on being ready for any situation, and tonight we created another part of our identity.

“We showed the world that we can overcome hard situations.”

It certainly wasn’t Alabama’s best game. Not even close, really. The Crimson Tide looked like they might be on the verge of putting the game away late in the third quarter, but freshman running back T.J. Yeldon lost the handle on a handoff and fumbled at the LSU 10.

Not only that, but junior quarterback AJ McCarron missed his first five passes to start the second half, and Alabama’s normally suffocating defense was on its way to giving up 435 yards in total offense, the most the Crimson Tide have allowed since Saban’s first season in 2007, when they gave up 475 yards to LSU in a 41-34 loss.

“I don’t feel like we could have played any worse in the second half. We were just sloppy,” Jones said. “But we never panicked.”

Instead, the Crimson Tide demonstrated why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and why they’ve won 22 of their past 23 games dating back to the end of the 2010 season.

Tiger Stadium was so loud that it was literally quaking after LSU took a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter and seized all the momentum.

Alabama got the ball back on its own 28 with 1:34 to play and no timeouts remaining.

As the Tide players huddled, Jones looked at his teammates and said, “Guys, we have a chance to make history right here. Who wants to make history?”

Sure enough, McCarron completed four of his next five passes, and five plays later, Yeldon was celebrating in the LSU end zone after a 28-yard touchdown catch on a perfectly executed screen pass.

“A lot of things didn’t happen right, and a lot of things were out of character for us,” Jones said. “But we made plays when we had to.”

Saban knew what his team was in for, and he also knew that LSU would find a way to make it a four-quarter game.

And while he won’t be happy when he watches the tape and sees the missed tackles and some of the other mistakes that plagued his team, Saban will also be reminded of a couple of similar performances in 2009, when Alabama didn’t play its best football and still found ways to win against both Auburn and Tennessee en route to the Tide’s first national championship under Saban.

In just about every championship season, there are going to be games where you don’t play your best, but you find a way to win.

Saban’s message to his team at halftime was simple.

“I told our guys that we’re going to have to keep fighting in this game and keep punching until we knock them out,” Saban said.

It was LSU, though, that did most of the punching coming out of the break and rallied from a 14-3 deficit. Alabama went three-and-out on its first two possessions, which set the tone for the Tigers to climb back into the game.

“We told our players, and it’s kind of ironic, that we would have to overcome a lot of adversity to win a game here,” said Saban, who’s won eight of his past nine games against nationally ranked teams.

“And when things went bad and the momentum of the game changed, that’s what we kept talking to them about. They kept their poise, and they kept playing and they kept competing. I’ve never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity.”

When you play for Saban, it’s never wise to get caught up in reflection during the course of the season. In his world, there are no rearview mirrors.

But Jones did allow himself one brief moment of reflection before leaving the field late Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.

“It was surreal being a part of this game,” Jones said. “One day I’ll be watching [TV] and the greatest games ever played, and this one will be on there.”

The Tide hope their great escape is only a prelude to something bigger and better, like a third national championship in the past four years.

And maybe even another bear hug for Jones.