TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It isn't often that you witness ongoing futility so clearly in a single football play that you see an entire season turn on its head at the same time. In the fourth quarter on Saturday night, with his team down 27-10 and being battered all over a murky evening by Alabama, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris found himself pursued by elements of the Alabama defense, as had been the case all night. Hopelessly surrounded, Harris unloaded the ball to the nearest friendly jersey. Unfortunately, it belonged to Jerald Hawkins. He made a nice catch. Alas, Hawkins was an offensive lineman before Harris threw him the ball, and he was an offensive lineman when he caught it. Still, it was one of the best plays LSU managed all night.
A lot of things got thrown into a mild form of chaos with Alabama's 30-16 win at Bryant-Denny Stadium. LSU running back Leonard Fournette's chances at a Heisman Trophy got dinged up for the first time; swarmed all night, Fournette managed only 31 yards on 19 carries, and he got thoroughly outplayed at his position by Alabama's Derrick Henry, who gained 213 yards and scored three times. While coach Nick Saban would rather remove his own eyeballs with a lemon zester than admit it, his defense was tired of hearing about Fournette, and it played very much like it.
"It really just comes down to, like Coach has probably said all week, just dominating our box," said Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee. "Everyone just went on their one-on-one battles. Once everyone was winning their individual battles, we were all together as a defense. Our gap control was really sound tonight, and they were always backed up on third down."
The Tigers were discombobulated by a particularly wild-eyed home crowd. They hurt themselves with bad field position and cheap penalties, and throughout, they seemed to play faster than they wanted to in order to stay ahead of some dire and peril that only they could see. In particular, Harris appeared to be playing surrounded not only by the Alabama defenders, but also as though he were fleeing a claque of invisible werewolves in red shirts and houndstooth hats.
"I think that the administration of the offense, in terms of snap count and procedure, suffered a little bit tonight. I think that the offensive line faced a very talented and capable defensive line in Alabama, so they were tested," LSU coach Les Miles said. "We have to function better rather than have 5-yard penalties because we were out of time. It's just maybe not being on the road as often as we have been in normal seasons, considering the South Carolina game was back at home. I didn't prepare them as well as I could of for the road."
As for Saban, he would like you to know that his team took Fournette out of the game with a solid wall of impenetrable jargon: "I always get a good feeling in a game when [the other team] runs that first zone extra and they don't get anything. That's when the nose [guard] flatheads the center, and the 5-technique knocks the guy back and the linebacker fills. That's [LSU's] bread and butter [offensive formation], so to be able to control that with our front seven was really good, and those guys did a great job."
Sorry, Coach. I don't speak playbook.
(To be entirely fair to Fournette, his prime competition for the prized andiron had a rough day as well. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin threw four interceptions in a loss to Oklahoma State. And his week wasn't a walk in the park, either. He and his family got crossways with some arcane NCAA regulations.)
The national championship playoff got scrambled, too. Alabama jumped into third place, and LSU dropped to ninth. Given the hallucinogenic finish that gave Arkansas a win at Mississippi, the Crimson Tide once again appear to be the favorite in the SEC West. All of this muddling came courtesy of a game in which Alabama dominated play almost from the moments the band left the field. Alabama's defense, which has improved almost by the hour over the past month, held LSU to 16 first downs and only 182 total yards. The Crimson Tide were quicker to the ball all night defensively, and they just wore LSU down. Significantly, after Henry fumbled deep in his own territory late in the game, enabling LSU (and Fournette) to score its final touchdown, Alabama won the game on a long drive that produced no points at all.
Starting on its 4-yard line, with 9 minutes, 5 seconds left in the game, Alabama ran out the rest of the clock. Key to the drive was a 29-yard run by Henry on a third-and-9 from his own 27-yard line. He simply was too strong for whatever was left in the LSU defenders, because he had worn it out of them all night long.
After the game, with his dreads piled high on his head and a diamond catching the TV lights in his ear, Henry looked like the world's strongest Wailer. But he stuck resolutely to the company line, praising his offensive linemen and professing not a lick of interest in whether he thought he had pushed his way into the Heisman discussion with his towering performance across the field from the more highly publicized Fournette.
"I'm not really worried about the Heisman," Henry said. "We came out and we played and we competed and we beat a great team as a whole. ... We were motivated as whole just to win the game because they're a tough team."
Henry came to Tuscaloosa in 2013 from Yulee in Florida, an old and battered railroad town in the state's northeast corner that serves now primarily as a waystation for itinerant golfers on their way to Amelia Island, and named for the first Jewish member of the United States Senate. Henry was the highest-rated player in his graduating class that year. He bided his time behind T.J. Yeldon, but he broke loose on his own late last season. Henry was probably Alabama's offensive star in its loss to Ohio State in last January's College Football Playoff semifinal, rushing for 95 yards and catching two passes for 54 more, including a 52-yard catch and run.
Still, he is such a company man in speech and demeanor that the real statement of his talent can best be measured by the number of people who bounce off him as he runs. At 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, Henry is two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than the more celebrated Fournette. You could see the difference in that final drive, which included the last 10 of his 38 carries and the last 88 of his 213 yards.
"I'm gonna do whatever Coach wants me to do. You know what I'm saying?" Henry said. "I just wanted to finish the drive and secure the win, keep the clock running, let the time run so we could all get the win. I just wanted to finish the drive. You know, I had that turnover, fumbled the ball and let them get that touchdown. I wasn't happy about that.
"Every year, they're a physical team. Every year, they have a good defense, good linebackers and good secondary. We knew it was going to [be] a 15-round fight, and we wanted to be physical and win it."
In a lot of ways, the season really began in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night. Alabama had reasserted itself, in its conference and in the country. The Heisman Trophy had been thrown up for grabs. Some things are implacable, like Saban's jargon or the way Henry runs the ball. Sooner or later, all the starch gets taken out of a season's eccentricity and, inexorably, the basic bedrock of the sport is exposed again.
On a night of thick misting rain and upended expectations, the tents came down, and the random streetlights shone off the mud-blossomed front lawns of all the frathouses. (Saturday was a bad night for blazers and khakis. Sunday, I imagine, was a good day for Tuscaloosa's dry cleaners.) The stadium lights stayed on a long time, and a scrambled season seemed to have arranged itself in some sort of order. For a week, anyway.