Tigers break through, stun Alabama in instant classic

DANIELS’ DANCE:  LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels used some exceptional downfield blocks and his speed to run untouched for a 25-yard TD in overtime, setting the stage for the No. 15 Tigers’ last-play triumph over sixth-ranked Alabama. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE — It took four quarters and then some, but Saturday’s 32-31 overtime win by LSU against Alabama allowed new Tigers’ coach Brian Kelly to check another box off of his coaching bucket list on his third try:

Beat Nick Saban.

“I had never beaten Alabama,” Kelly said. “Those things are kind of, you want to check the box and move on. I get a little emotional about those, but I was emotional not for myself, but I was emotional for our team. I know what we looked like in January, and I see where we are today, and that’s pretty emotional.”

Kelly had to set all emotion aside for his final play call of the night, a two-point conversion attempt in overtime that could secure the Tigers’ second consecutive upset – and by far, biggest win since the 2019 national championship season.  So, when he dialed up a play that would roll quarterback Jayden Daniels out to find tight end Mason Taylor on the goalline, there was no second-guessing the decision.

“You’re going to get second-guessed in that situation if you don’t get it, I get that,” Kelly said. “To me I just felt like, I looked at our team, I assessed the situation, and I just felt like it was the right thing to do. I don’t feel like our fans would have been criticizing it, they’d want me to get the win. That’s what I’m here for.”

While Kelly made a calculated call to go for two, his true freshman tight end admitted that he had to keep his nerves in check for a moment.

“When they first called the play my heart low-key dropped, I’m not gonna lie,” Taylor said. “But we practiced for this. Pressure is a privilege at LSU, so I went out there and executed just like practice. I’m glad our coaches trust me with the play and the ball.”

The No. 15-ranked Tigers (7-2) went back and forth with sixth-rated Alabama for four quarters before that fateful play, but the game started on a much different note. The Crimson Tide (also 7-2) had no issue driving the ball 76 yards on eight plays on their first series, but a pair of Shreveport natives killed the momentum Alabama had built.  Micah Baskerville forced an errant throw into the hands of Jarrick Bernard-Converse in the end zone.

Thanks to heavy pressure on Bryce Young, the Crimson Tide was kept out of the end zone in the first half, the first time all season Alabama didn’t score a touchdown in the first two quarters.

Alabama’s offensive efforts weren’t helped by a sold-out crowd in Tiger Stadium that kept Alabama’s offense out of sorts all game. With Young having to take extra time to call out his plays due to crowd noise, the Crimson Tide weren’t able to maintain an up-tempo offense: Young accumulated 328 yards through the air, but completed just 25 of 51 passes for one touchdown with one interception.

“The crowd was unbelievable,” Kelly said. “They created an energy unlike one that I can remember, that was sustainable for our football team. That was truly a home field advantage for us.”

The Crimson Tide relied heavily on their passing game to get them out of their own red zone. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs was Saban’s most efficient weapon, racking up 99 yards on 16 carries and 64 yards on eight catches.

LSU’s offense didn’t fare much better in the first quarter, but managed to score the game’s first points when John Emery Jr. caught a pass along the Tigers’ sideline and took it for a 30-yard touchdown with 13:04 left in the second quarter. With their offensive efforts sputtering, the Crimson Tide had to settle for field goals from Will Reichard on three consecutive drives — two in the second quarter and one to start the third – in order to secure their first lead of the game, 9-7.

That lead changed hands seven more times starting from the 3:30 mark in the third quarter, but the Tigers suffered a serious gut punch with 4:44 left in the final period. Young escaped a collapsing pocket, scrambled and found a wide-open Ja’Corey Brooks behind defenders for a 41-yard touchdown to give Alabama the edge, 21-17.

The Tigers rebounded by driving 75 yards in seven plays for Daniels 7-yarder to Taylor and a 24-21 lead in the waning minutes. Alabama tied it at 24 with 21 seconds left on a 46-yard field goal by Reichard. When the Tide’s Roydell Williams scored to open overtime and Reichard kicked the extra point, Kelly decided there wouldn’t be a second OT.

So, when Daniels ran for a 25-yard touchdown on the first play, Kelly knew he had to capture that moment. He rolled the dice with a do-or-die try for two and the win.

“If you asked me, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you one play, and if you’re successful on that one play, you beat Alabama,’ I would’ve taken that 100 times out of 100,” Kelly said. “At that moment, it kind of hit me that way, and I knew we had a really good play we hadn’t used, and they hadn’t seen.”

It’s one that won’t fade from memory any time soon, if ever.

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com