Late turnover dooms No. 17 Alabama as No. 3 LSU holds on
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -- They strolled toward each other in the center of Bryant-Denny Stadium, the former coach at LSU and the guy who replaced him. After a quick handshake and a few obligatory words, Nick Saban and Les Miles headed off in opposite directions.
Maybe now, the folks at LSU (No. 3 BCS, No. 3 AP) can get over Saban and be content with what they have: a living-on-the-edge team and a cardiac coach who keeps finding ways to win.
The Tigers did it again Saturday night, scoring two touchdowns in the final three minutes to stay in the thick of the national championship race with a heart-stopping 41-34 win over No. 17 Alabama.
"When our backs are against the wall, we play our best," said Glenn Dorsey, LSU's defensive star. "When we need to make plays, we make them."
This one will surely play well in Cajun Country, where they got to relish the sight of Saban, dressed in a white shirt with crimson trim, going over to congratulate the gold-and-purple-clad players he left behind two years ago.
Saban coached a couple of seasons in the NFL, then stunned the LSU faithful by returning to the college game -- at Alabama, of all places, a rival school in the Southeastern Conference.
This was payback, not matter how much Saban tried to protest.
"It ain't got nothing to do with me," he said in a fiery post-game news conference that bordered at times on a lecture. "I don't coach LSU anymore. I coach Alabama. I'm going to do a good job coaching Alabama. We're going to recruit good players. We're going to have a good team. We're going to have a good program.
"So, it's got nothing to do with me. Nothing."
At the very least, it was about his successor at LSU. Miles has faced persistent criticism that he's not that great a coach, that he's simply winning with the enormous talent Saban left behind.
However it's happening, Miles has the Tigers on a roll and now, with No. 2 Boston College losing 27-17 to Florida State, it's likely they'll move up another slot in the rankings and the BCS standings.
In the locker room, the players presented Miles with the game ball.
"It's good to get this game behind us," said quarterback Matt Flynn, "and let coach Miles know this is his team."
The Tigers (8-1, 5-1 SEC) pulled it out in typical fashion, going down to the wire in their fourth straight game.
Alabama (6-3, 4-2) went ahead on a 61-yard punt return by Javier Arenas with 7 1/2 minutes left, and the Crimson Tide was in position to deliver a knockout when the Tigers faced fourth-and-4 at the Bama 32.
No problem for this team that went 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions in a win over Florida to start this remarkable run of nail-biting games.
Flynn tossed a pass over the middle to Early Doucet, who shook away from one defender, faked out another and went all the way to the end zone for the tying score with 2:49 remaining.
Alabama got it back, but safety Chad Jones burst up the middle to sack John Parker Wilson and knock the ball away. It rolled along the turf until LSU's Curtis Taylor fell on it at the Tide 4.
Two plays later, Jacob Hester dove over from the 1 with 1:26 left and LSU was still in the title race.
"We kept hanging in there, kept fighting," Miles said. "We found a way to win. I've never seen that many mistakes in a game. We'll never play that poorly again."
Here's one for Miles' critics: The biggest play was delivered by one of his recruits; Jones is a true freshman from Baton Rouge.
"Some people are down on him, but coach Miles is a great coach," Doucet said. "I'm happy to be playing for him."
LSU beat Florida and Auburn on its final possession and lost to Kentucky the same way. This time, the Tigers actually gave themselves a little breathing room, allowing Flynn to simply kneel for the final two plays.
The game fully delivered on its buildup, the two teams going at each other like heavyweights throwing nothing but bombs. There were numerous big plays and amazing swings in momentum, but LSU came through when it mattered.
"It was hard," Saban conceded during a rare bit of reflection afterward. "It's a little bit like playing someone in your family. I wish those guys well. I want to see them do well. I'll be proud to see them do well."
Flynn, whose three first-half interceptions helped Alabama get back in the game from an early 17-3 deficit, calmly drove the Tigers 84 yards in 10 plays for the tying touchdown.
Then the touted LSU defense came up with not just a stop, but a turnover.
Wilson completed only 14 of 40 passes for Alabama, though it seemed every one was a game-changer. He threw three touchdowns, hooking up with DJ Hall on a 67-yarder and hitting Keith Brown for scores of 29 and 14 yards.
Alabama, with two linemen and its top running back suspended over textbook issues, couldn't muster a running game. The Tide finished with just 20 yards on the ground and were outgained 475-254 overall.
After squandering its two-touchdown lead and falling behind, LSU finally responded with Flynn's 61-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd in the final minute of the third quarter.
That was just the warmup for another down-to-the-wire finish.
"We should have won, and I'm really angry right now," Alabama linebacker Darren Mustin said. "I feel like we had that game won, but we just let them take it away from us."
Saban was even more scratching in his critique.
"We don't play with enough discipline," he said. "It drives me nuts. My hands are bruised from smacking them together when we made mistakes, when we did the wrong things."
The Tigers -- well, their fans at least -- felt Saban did them wrong by returning to the SEC West, which meant he gets to face his former team every year. They couldn't wait for their first shot at the $4 Million Man, the annual salary Alabama doled out to lure Saban back to college.
Miles and his players said they never bought into the get-back-at-Saban mentality. They've got more important things on their agenda.
"That had nothing to do with who coaches the teams," Miles said. "This was about two football teams and position in the West." Not to mention the national race.
After the clock struck zero, ending the four-hour-plus marathon, it seemed as though all was forgiven. Saban lingered on the field to shake hands with his former players.
"I love our players here more. I'm going to work with them every day to try to help them be successful," Saban said. "But I can't just throw away the feelings I have for those players, the ones I have a relationship with. That just doesn't go away."
Maybe now, though, it can be put to rest.
2022 Southeastern Conference Standings