The Fifth Quarter: Alabama-LSU Rewind

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Yes, this game was so big it gets its own Rewind.  Your regularly-scheduled “The Fifth Quarter: Week 10 Rewind” will appear, in its entirety, later on in the day Sunday.

Ben did a helluva job with the post-game recap of one of the more entertaining football games you’ll see at any level, a 21-17 win for the top-ranked team in the nation.  Below is a little bit of the minutia and talking points that may or may not litter sports radio shows and water cooler conversations throughout the weekend and into the start of a new work week.

THE TURNING POINT
The first five drives of the second half, LSU’s relentlessly stifling defense had held Alabama’s offense in check, limiting the No. 1 Tide to 49 yards of total offense.  In those five series, the No. 5 Tigers forced four three-and-outs and one fumble.

And then came the sixth drive.

After a missed 38-yard field goal attempt gave the Tide the ball at their own 28-yard line with 1:34 left in the game, LSU, which had been in full-blown attack mode on defense throughout, went into full-blown soft-zone mode.  It turned out to be the worst of several questionable decisions made by Les Miles and his coaching staff throughout the game.

In three plays after taking possession, and in less than 40 seconds, the Tide gained nearly as many yards (44) as they had in the entire second half previously, moving from their own 28 to the same yard line on LSU’s side of the field.  Following an incompletion on the fourth play of what would prove to be the game-winning drive, LSU again donned their blitzing caps… and the Tide made the Tigers pay dearly, dialing up a perfectly-executed screen pass from AJ McCarron to T.J. Yeldon that saved both the game and the Tide’s title aspirations.

It’s hard to blame LSU for trying to prevent the one big play that would cost them the game.  It’s not hard to blame LSU, though, for a decision that allowed a trio of mini-big plays, ultimately leading to the big play.

THUMBS UP

Back-to-back still intact
Suffice to say, the biggest winner of the night was Alabama’s title hopes.  If last week was the Tide’s first real test of the 2012 season, tonight was their first real test of the year.  And, while they didn’t pass with the flying colors of a week ago, they passed.  At this stage of the season, that’s all that matters — for the most part.  While the Tide had walked, talked, smelled and played like an unstoppable force through eight games — so  much so, in fact, that the laughable notion of UA being able to beat an NFL team was actually taking hold — they were anything but that for a sizable chunk of the first 58 minutes.  As odd as it sounds, though, that might’ve been the second most important development of the night as it gives Nick Saban‘s coaching arsenal yet another pointed teaching tool to use on what is still, despite all of the wins and lofty rankings, a very young football team.  Complacency will likely be the Tide’s biggest enemy for the remainder of the regular season; the LSU game tape would serve as the ultimate trump card, as evidenced by Saban’s quotes following the game.

“Our players have to be aware that they can take this one way or the other,” the coach said of the hard-fought win. “This one is either going to affect them in a positive way or a negative way with what they do in the future. They can focus on the things they didn’t do and take the next challenge and continue to improve and be ready to play next week and prepare and practice next week or they can say, ‘We’re satisfied for ourselves with what we did.'”

AJ’s Heisman hopes
AJ McCarron, because of Alabama’s style of play, will simply not put up the type of numbers that other Heisman contenders do on a weekly basis, and that was never more evident than this latest Saturday night in Death Valley.  That final drive, however, was the stuff of which legends are made.  And the stuff that attracts the attention of Heisman voters regardless of the stat line for the first 58 minutes.  The raw, from-the-heart emotion McCarron displayed as the final seconds ticked off the clock and then boiled over as he met his parents beyond the end zone after the game were as epic, in a good way, as his engineering of the final drive.  I don’t know if the junior deserves to win the Heisman, but he certainly belongs in the discussion.

The SEC
If you don’t think the SEC was privately and/or publicly rooting for an Alabama win, you might consider removing your head from the sand as it’s awfully hot and hard to breathe down there.  For the conference in general and the Tide specifically, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.  An Alabama loss would’ve left the SEC with no unbeaten teams.  When combined with three other highly-ranked teams still unbeaten — four if you want to consider Louisville as part of the mix — the SEC’s streak of six straight BcS titles would’ve been in serious jeopardy, with the conference in the uncharted territory of relying on outside help for a ticket to the title game.  Fortunately for the SEC, the Tide’s win left the conference with the inside track for one of the two spots in the BcS championship game.  Just as fortunate?  There were no controversial calls that favored Alabama and played a role in the outcome of the game…

Death Valley didn’t disappoint
Forget the fact that LSU lost just its second home game under the lights (Florida, 2009) under Les Miles.  The atmosphere at Tiger Stadium, even from my vantage point a little over 1,000 miles, is simply electric and by all accounts deafening, which makes the Tide’s triumph all the more impressive.  If you were to make a list of the greatest venues for any sport in the country, it wouldn’t take long to call roll before you got to Death Valley.  It’s a credit to the university, the football program and, most importantly, the fan base that such a spectacle exists.  Yes, the loss was certainly disappointing to those that live and die with the Bayou Bengals, but they can take heart in the knowledge that they are a big part of what makes the sport of college football so great.  And, yes, a trip to Death Valley is on my sports bucket list.  Gotta get there at some point for a night game…

Democrats
Regardless of what the polls may or may not say, the Democratic Party has to be feeling pretty good heading into Tuesday based solely on the results of a football game.  Why?  According to research conducted by FanSided.com, the winner of the Alabama-LSU has accurately predicted the results of all seven presidential elections held since 1984.  In years that Alabama won, a Democrat won the election.  In years LSU won, a Republican was sent to the White House. So, with the Tide’s win, is it hello second term for the sitting president?  Your mileage may vary greatly as to whether an eighth-consecutive accurate prediction would be a positive or negative development.

THUMBS DOWN

The Mad Hatter
Take your pick on the daffiest of the daftness of the Mad Hatter in this game.  Was it the failed fake field goal that everybody — including the Tide’s defense and my grandmother, who’s been six feet under for two decades — saw coming?  The failed onside kick, which admittedly would’ve been idiot savant-level genius were it not for a quirky bounce that resulted in an illegal touching penalty on the kicker?  The failed 54-yard field goal attempt that gave the Tide prime field position with just over a minute left in the second quarter, and which the Tide turned into a touchdown and a 14-3 lead heading into the half?  A failed fourth-and-one from the Alabama 24, one in which LSU utilized its version of the gimmicky Wildcat offense after it had been very successful running the football with the standard power game?  Individually, these plays didn’t cost LSU the game.  Collectively, they were part of the subtle flow of the game that set the table for the game-winning drive.

Oh, Copeland…
Midway through the second quarter, a fumbled punt on the part of the Tide was recovered by the Tigers at UA’s 32-yard line.  On the ensuing play, a 19-yard run by Jeremy Hill moved the Tigers down to the 13-yard line… and a post-play personal foul on J.C. Copeland moved the ball back to the 28.  While it was still first and 10 following the penalty, all the momentum gained from the previous two plays was lost as the Tigers gained just one yard the next three, leading to the failed fake field goal.  The penalty almost certainly cost the Tigers at least a field goal, if not a touchdown.  In what was a four-point loss, and even as it occurred in the first half, Copeland’s momentary lapse of reason was a significant moment in the game.

Who are you and what’d you do with the Tide’s defense?
Through the first eight games of the season, Alabama led the country by stingily giving up just a little over 57 yards per game on the ground; LSU churned out 80 rushing yards… in the first quarter alone.  For the game, the Tigers rushed for 139 yards; previously, the most the Tide had given up in a single game this season was 80 to Ole Miss in Week 5.  Add that to some very suspect play in the passing game, and we’re guessing Nick Saban will spend an inordinate amount of time tightening things up on that side of the ball as the Tide preps for the high-octane Texas A&M Aggies’ trip to Tuscaloosa this Saturday.

McCarron’s Heisman hopes
As great as the final drive was, the first 58:26 was as choppy of a game McCarron has played in his one-plus seasons as the Tide’s starting quarterback.  On that final drive, McCarron was 4-5 for 72 yards and a touchdown; prior to that, he was 10-22 for 93 yards and one rushing touchdown.  On what will be his second-biggest stage before votes are cast — the SEC championship being the biggest, provided the Tide can navigate games against A&M and Auburn — the question will become what voters give the most weight to when it comes to McCarron’s stiff-armed candidacy: the first 58, or final two.

QUOTABLE

“I’ve never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity. … It’s something I’ll never forget.” — Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

“It was a very hard game. We needed a hard game.” — Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner.

“You’ll remember this one forever.  It hurts worse than the [loss to Alabama] in the national championship game.” — LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

— From the UA Sports Information Department: AJ McCarron continues to build his school record of passes without an interception. McCarron ends the LSU game with an active streak of 289 passing attempts without an interception.

— Speaking of McCarron, the junior is one touchdown pass away from tying and two away from breaking Greg McElroy‘s single-season mark of 20 set in 2010.  He’s also 10 touchdown passes away from breaking John Parker Wilson‘s career mark of 47.

— Despite the loss, quarterback Zach Mettenberger came of age for the Tigers.  In unquestionably his finest performance in his first season as a starter, Mettenberger completed 24-of-35 passes for 298 yards, one touchdown and, most impressively considering the opposition’s defense, no interceptions.

— Until late in the third quarter, LSU had gone 169:38 without scoring a touchdown against Alabama, a span that stretched back to 8:13 left in the fourth quarter of the Nov. 6, 2010, win over the Tide and which covered two-plus games.  Then, in a span of 5:37, the Tigers exploded for a pair of touchdowns.

— The 435 yards of total offense by the Tigers was the most surrendered by a Tide defense since a loss to the same team in November of 2007, Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa.

— The attendance of 93,374 is a new Tiger Stadium record.

— Alabama leads the all-time series with LSU, 47-25-5.

WATCH: Ole Miss Baker Mayfields its flag on Mississippi State’s field

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Talk about adding insult to injury.

Heading into Week 13, three-loss Mississippi State, ranked 14th in the latest College Football Playoff rankings for whatever reason, was a 16-point favorite over Egg Bowl rival Ole Miss for Thursday night’s game in Starkville.  The loss of starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to a gruesome first-half injury all but sealed the Bulldogs’ fate; A.J. Brown‘s all-game production proved to be the dagger in sealing that fate, putting an exclamation point on the Rebels’ third win in the in-state rivalry the last four years.

As to how it all ties in to the lede?  The visiting Rebels decided to go all Baker Mayfield on Stark Vegas’ midfield after the win…

… not long after the same player who planted the flag hiked his leg like a dog, feigning urinating on the Vaught–Hemingway Stadium field.

There could very well be two different coaches in charge when the next Egg Bowl rolls around, but this will always be, regardless of who is on the sidelines, one of the most vitriolic rivalries in all of college sports.  Or sports, period.

A.J. Brown powers Ole Miss to Egg Bowl win over No. 15 Mississippi State

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No. 14 Mississippi State lost their quarterback, lost the game, lost the Egg Bowl trophy and lost a year’s worth of rivalry trash talk in one fell swoop on a chilly Thanksgiving evening at home. To add insult to injury, they lost all that at the hands of a Starkville native to boot as star receiver A.J. Brown powered Ole Miss to their sweetest victory of the year over their in-state rivals 31-28.

The Rebels needed just three plays and 39 seconds to open the scoring in what was perhaps the team’s best all-around game in several weeks, showing no signs of any tryptophan-induced sluggishness following a traditional turkey day meal. Brown finished the game with 167 yards receiving and a 77 yard touchdown to cap off a terrific return to his hometown in opposing colors, while tailback Jordan Wilkins also chipped in with another 110 yards and two scores on the ground to pace the offense.

The old Landshark defense also made an appearance, with the second worst team in all of FBS when it came to forcing turnovers managing to secure a whopping five turnovers and three sacks.

While the loss was undoubtedly disappointing for the Bulldogs, most of the team’s attention was on their star quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald. He entered the game on the verge of another 2,000 yard passing/1,000 yard rushing season but was tackled awkwardly on a three yard run early in the first quarter. Replays showed his ankle to be facing a much different direction than it should as part of a gruesome scene and the signal-caller was carted off to the team’s medical facilities shortly thereafter amid a raucous applause from fans on both sides.

Fitzgerald later returned to the sidelines to cheer on his teammates but it certainly appears that his promising season is over as Mississippi State turns their attention to a bowl game in the coming weeks.

Stepping in at quarterback was freshman Keytaon Thompson, who was much more of a threat with his legs than his arm until a few late drives. He finished the night with 195 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a team-high 121 yards rushing (with another score) in relief. Tailback Aeris Williams managed to rack up 82 yards and a score but faced a stacked line of scrimmage at every turn given the injury to his veteran teammate.

While the injury to Fitzgerald overshadowed the game, the backdrop of Ole Miss’ NCAA infractions case loomed large over the rivalry as much as the game itself. The two schools’ fan bases have been quite chippy and MSU linebacker Leo Lewis — a central figure in the case — was kept in check to the tune of two tackles and a half a sack as the Rebels didn’t attack him like some thought they would.

Perhaps more pressing to some Bulldogs fans is if that was the last Egg Bowl they would see with head coach Dan Mullen patrolling the sidelines. His name has been linked to openings at Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska and others in the past few weeks and there is a growing expectation that the most successful coach in school history could have just donned the maroon and white for the final time in a loss.

That’s of no concern across the way as interim coach Matt Luke did a good job rallying the team to their sixth win of the season. The Rebels are not bowl eligible as part of self-imposed sanctions but the satisfaction of beating their rivals probably takes the sting out of that fact just a little bit, especially with a Starkville native like Brown leading the way on Thursday night.

Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald suffers gruesome ankle injury to spoil first half of the Egg Bowl

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The Egg Bowl has returned to Thanksgiving but the game hasn’t gone quite as planned for No. 14 Mississippi State, as they trail Ole Miss 10-6 after a low-scoring first half of play thanks to a shocking injury that brought both sides of the heated rivalry to their feet in unison.

That came early in the first quarter when Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was tackled after a three-yard run, suffering a gruesome ankle injury in the process that saw his foot point in a direction it certainly wasn’t supposed to. He was put in an air cast and carted off the field to perform x-rays immediately afterward and needless to say will not return to the game.

The productive signal-caller was just 1-of-5 passing with an interception and 16 yards rushing when he went down with the injury. Fitzgerald was approaching the 2,000 yard passing and 1,000 yard rushing marks for the season heading into the game and received plenty of support from his fellow football players around the SEC and beyond after suffering such a horrific-looking injury that appears to knock him out for the rest of 2017.

Freshman Keytaon Thompson replaced Fitzgerald behind center and went 3-of-5 passing for 32 yards and an interception. He’s known for his running ability at this stage and did manage a team-high 65 yards on the ground, including a 32 yard scamper. Running back Aeris Williams was fairly limited facing a stacked box against a new quarterback and ran for 41 yards in the half as turnovers (three of them) really hampered MSU in the half.

With Ole Miss ineligible for postseason play even if they won on Thursday night, it was not at all surprising to see the Rebels play better than they have in a long time. The team needed just three plays and 39 seconds on their opening possession to find the end zone and were punching far above their weight defensively too. Wide receiver A.J. Brown was the big play threat once again for the offense, with five catches and 90 yards after just a half of play. In the process, he set a new school single-season record for receiving yards and joined kicker Greg Wunderlich (all-time school leader in FG’s) in the record books for the visitors as they look to  get a little bit of payback for last year’s 55-20 loss in Oxford.

The two programs have split the last six meetings in the hotly contested Egg Bowl rivalry and both appear locked into another close one after a half of play. It’s too bad that an injury to an all-SEC player had to spoil things early on but both the Bulldogs and the Rebels will have to put that behind them as they emerge from the locker room hoping to secure a win after years worth of bad blood.

Odell Beckham Jr. gifts LSU players recently unveiled custom shoes ahead of regular season finale

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LSU has produced plenty of NFL stars in recent years but few identify with the Tigers quite like New York Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. does. The Baton Rouge native recently released his first “lifestyle” shoe with Nike last week and has been hitting the press circuit almost as hard as the rehab room as a result to showcase the new kicks.

Not one to forget where he went to school and blossomed into a first round pick, Beckham filmed a video for LSU’s football team this week and really gave the Tigers something to be thankful for on Thanksgiving by giving every player on the team a version of the shoe to wear when they’re suiting up in cleats.

The color isn’t quite a true match for LSU gold but it’s certainly pretty close and even comes with the longitude and latitude of Baton Rouge inscribed. You can probably bet that the team will be wearing them to Tiger Stadium prior to taking on Texas A&M on Saturday in the regular season finale for both sides.