TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Leave the preposterous final scores, the woolly absurdity and the frayed, fried nerve endings to Stillwater, East Lansing and Iowa City. We come here to witness order. Doubt gets no seat in these packed, hallowed premises. If you wish to challenge your stomach, you’ll have to do it with tailgate toxins.
No. 2 Alabama mastered No. 19 LSU, 24-10, Saturday night, and the compliment you could pay LSU is that its statistics did rise well above the puny and the pitiable. Where LSU got 35 rushing yards against Alabama last year, and 54 here in 2015, and where Alabama came in allowing 66.38 rushing yards per game, and 236 total yards, both No. 1 in the land, LSU got 151 and 306.
Call it a victory strictly moral.
It never felt like Alabama (9-0) might lose even though LSU stacked the box with eight menaces and Alabama rushed for only 116 yards. It never felt like Alabama might lose even though it was a game for connoisseurs of punter, in which JK Scott punted eight times for 51.6 per, and Saban called that “critical,” and pinpointed Scott’s “hang time” for praise, and said, “The hang time and the distance was very, very effective in changing field position, and really important in a game like this.” It never felt like Alabama might lose even though running back Bo Scarbrough said, “I don’t think that was Alabama football.”
Form reigns. Habit holds. Chaos stays away. Alabama (9-0) wins solidly even when it doesn’t play Alabama football.
The usual 101,821 in Bryant-Denny Stadium, with their booming noise and their capacity to make the neck hairs stand during, for instance, the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” never convey any sense of fret or desperation. Apart from the rest of college football, they don’t have to. They hardly even have to berate the refs. They relish the scrambles of sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, and they empty the upper decks by the fourth quarter even in a game not completely shut.
In this skewed scenario, games feel like tales of two separate story lines — one good, one beyond good — rather than two story lines converging.
“We’re coming,” LSU Coach Ed Orgeron said, and that was evident, but it never related to the obvious outcome.
“We didn’t play a great game out there,” Saban said, and that was evident, but it never related to the obvious outcome.
Even the costly loss of two linebackers, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson, led to sadness but then to other capable guys, of whom Hurts said, “It’ll be their time to shine and it’ll be their time to show their abilities.”
In this skewed scenario, suspense lurks only in individual plays. LSU sacked the elusive Hurts thrice. Each seemed a newsworthy little victory. When LSU quarterback Danny Etling lofted an early 31-yard pass to Stephen Sullivan, that counted as an achievement. When Etling threw 23 yards up the right sideline in the second quarter to the generally dazzling DJ Chark, to the Alabama 5-yard line, that seemed like something Alabama might want to address — relatively.
The Tigers settled for a field goal, anyway.
They did a not-bad job against the supermen of Tuscaloosa. At 6-3 with three straight strong wins and still wearing LSU colors, they’re too good and tough themselves to warrant some patronizing pat on the head, but their accomplishments against Alabama come nowadays in more measured forms. They caused Saban to say, “We hadn’t been tested with ‘hard,'” and, “‘Hard’ kind of defines you.”
That’s how this one-time primo rivalry of the SEC has ebbed. It features seven straight Alabama wins since January 2012, and Alabama’s overall ledger features 30 straight regular season wins. Nobody has beaten Alabama in a regular season since Sept. 19, 2015, when Ole Miss came in here and won ludicrously, 43-37, a crisis so unbearable it hasn’t gone repeated since.
Even while actually out-gained 306-299, Alabama did go 90 yards in nine plays in the first quarter, getting a pretty 47-yard pass up the middle from Hurts to Henry Ruggs III along the way. Hurts faked, rolled right and threw to Irv Smith Jr. for the four-yard touchdown. It did go 37 yards after Ronnie Harrison’s interception near the end of the first quarter to reach 14-0, and that did seem insurmountable already. Hurts might not be a gold-medal archer yet, but his 24-yard pass to Calvin Ridley was a zinging beauty toward the right sideline that set up Scarbrough’s nine-yard stream to the end zone.
By the time Alabama went 56 yards in seven plays in the mid-to-late third quarter, a holding penalty that quashed a 31-yard pass to Ridley seemed to serve only as an obstacle worthy of cherishing. Hurts spent consecutive plays hitting Robert Foster for nine yards, Cam Sims for 15 and Ridley for 22. When Hurts then eased into the end zone from three yards out, and bowed to the audience, the fait seemed accompli, as it tends to this era in Tuscaloosa.
Shortly thereafter, with the upper stands emptying, LSU did get a touchdown arranged with Darrel Williams’s sudden 54-yard run to the 2-yard line. Against this particular, singular foe, it wasn’t bad.
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