TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Alabama staged one of their annual earthshaking, bruise-making SEC West showdowns Saturday night, and it followed the script as written, save for one important difference: the understudies performed the lead roles.
The team that ran the ball with power and speed wore Crimson. The running back who looked unstoppable wore No. 2, not No. 7. Yes, the Crimson Tide, despite their lower ranking, came into Bryant-Denny Stadium as the favorite, and yes, the Tide beat the Tigers, 30-16, for the fifth consecutive time in this feverish rivalry. But the way in which this one played out before 101,821 chilled fans will cause every Heisman voter to question beliefs formed over the first nine weeks of the season.
That would be Tide junior Derrick Henry, No. 2 in your program and No. 1 in your football game, who ran over, around and through the opposing defense 38 times for 210 yards and three touchdowns. That would be the Alabama offensive line that opened man-sized holes for four quarters and helped the Tide control the ball for 39:27.
"I can't say enough about Derrick Henry," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after the game. But maybe he could. When asked to expand upon that, Saban seemed nonplussed.
"We could have 'good,' 'better' and 'best,'" he said. "Or 'special,' 'specialer,' 'he's special,' I don't know. The guy's having a great year. He had a great game today. It couldn't have happened at a better time against a very good defensive team."
The inexorable truth about a good running team is that by the fourth quarter, time and weariness makes the defense a step slower. With the score 30-16 with 9:18 to play, LSU just having scored a touchdown after a Henry fumble -- hey, he's human! -- Saban channeled his inner Woody Hayes and ran Henry 10 times for 78 yards. That doesn't count Henry's two additional rushes for 21 yards on the drive that penalties rendered non-existent.
Meanwhile, the Alabama defense forced LSU sophomore Leonard Fournette, the leading rusher in the FBS, to play up to his name for three quarters. Not until the fourth quarter did the Heisman favorite gain more than Fournette yards on a single carry (that's four net yards for those of you who hate bad puns). An 18-yard gain on LSU's last possession saved Fournette from the ignominy of averaging less than a yard per rush. He finished with 31 yards on 19 carries, and the Heisman balloting just re-opened.
"The whole week, leading up to it, the guys in the locker room [were saying], 'Man, I'm tired of hearing about this guy. We got to go out there and do something," Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "He's a heck of a player. It's hard to stop a guy like that. I'm glad I got the guys I have in the locker room. They held it to themselves, the guys up front, 'we're not going to let him do this.'"
On those 19 different carries, Fournette got tackled by 14 different Tide defenders. It only looked like they hit him all at once. The SEC's best rushing offense (309.1 yards per game) ran for 54 yards. LSU ran 45 plays in all, or seven more than Henry himself, and gained 182 total yards, or 28 fewer than Henry.
An Alabama athletic department official said Henry came into this game on high alert, ready to show the world that No. 2 identified him only in the program. Henry refused to take the bait after the game, deflecting one comparative question after another by praising his offensive line and receivers for the way they blocked for him.
"I'm trying to help my offense, you know what I'm saying?" Henry said. "Too much talk about Fournette and me. I'm just trying to win with the entire Alabama football team." As limited as the LSU offense was, the Tigers still managed to scramble to a 10-10 tie late in the first half. The game then turned on two plays, separated by halftime. On the first, Saban sent out punter JK Scott on fourth-and-11 with the ball on the Tiger 37. Then Saban called timeout. He asked kicker Adam Griffith, "What do you think?"
Griffith replied, "I think I can hit it."
Griffith's 55-yard field goal with :14 left gave Alabama a 13-10 halftime lead. On the first play of the second half, linebacker Dillon Lee picked off Brandon Harris's errant pass to tight end Foster Moreau at the Tiger 28. Four plays later, Henry pounded the ball in from the 1, and LSU never got back into the game.
"This football team is much better than they showed tonight," LSU head coach Les Miles said. He wondered if the Tigers may have not been prepared for such a hostile crowd. LSU hasn't played an SEC road game since the second week of the season -- the South Carolina game moved to Baton Rouge because of the flood in Columbia.
With Ole Miss' improbable overtime loss to Arkansas, Alabama now has returned to its customary spot in control of the SEC West. Saban has praised how his team has responded to that 43-37 loss on Sept. 19, and he did so again Saturday night.
"I always have liked the grit of this team. I've always liked the way this team competes," he said. "They don't always execute right. ... Ability to overcome adversity has not been an issue with this group so far. Hopefully we can continue to persevere."
In the SEC West, and on the list of the top running games in the conference, Alabama is an understudy no more.