BATON ROUGE, La. – The Mad Hatter kept gambling.
This time, Les Miles got burned.
Three high-risk calls, the kind that have gone LSU's way so many times, all came up short against top-ranked Alabama. The No. 5 Tigers nearly pulled it out anyway, but A.J. McCarron led the Crimson Tide down the field at the end of the game, hitting T.J. Yeldon on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds remaining for a 21-17 victory on Saturday night.
"I wish I had a couple of my calls back," Miles said. "That's the way it goes."
Alabama (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) now has a clear path to the league championship game in Atlanta, and remains solidly on course to defend its national title in Miami.
Led by embattled quarterback Zach Mettenberger, LSU (7-2, 3-2) turned in its best performance of the season, rallying from a 14-3 halftime deficit. It wasn't enough, likely ruining LSU's hopes of getting back to the BCS championship game.
"Our football team came in here to win," Miles said. "We did not go timidly into the game. We went after it."
Certainly, the coach did.
His bag of tricks came up empty.
A fake field goal was stuffed. An onside kick took a bad bounce. And going for it on fourth down in Alabama territory didn't work out either.
Mettenberger nearly bailed out his coach. He finished 24 of 35 for a career-best 298 yards, with 14 of those completions for 202 yards coming over the final two quarters. Jarvis Landry had eight catches for 76 yards, hauling in a 14-yard touchdown that put LSU ahead 17-14 with just under 13 minutes remaining. Freshman Jeremy Hill rushed for 107 yards and a third-quarter touchdown that got LSU back in the game.
"This entire offense has been capable of that kind of performance all year," Mettenberger said. "As well as I played, I would have traded it all for a three-interception game and a win tonight. We have to try and get over this as quick as we can."
The Crimson Tide had to work for this one. Certainly, it was nothing like their 21-0 blowout of the Tigers in last season's BCS championship game.
Hill scored on a 1-yard run late in the third quarter, LSU's first TD against Alabama since 2010 — a span of nearly three full games. Then Mettenberger threw perhaps the best pass of his LSU career, hooking up with Landry in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
LSU was on the verge of putting the game away, driving into Alabama territory and forcing coach Nick Saban to call his remaining timeouts. But Drew Alleman missed a 45-yard field goal, and McCarron took over from there.
He completed three straight passes to put Alabama in scoring position. Then, when LSU brought a corner blitz, he got the ball away quickly to Yeldon on a screen. The perfect call. The freshman running back broke one tackle and faked out another defender, racing to the end zone for the winning score.
"I'm really, really pleased with that last drive," Saban said. "That's something I'll never forget."
Before the final drive, McCarron was 1 of 7 for 0 yards in the second half. All was forgiven when he guided the Crimson Tide on the lightning-quick 72-yard drive, connecting with Kevin Norwood on three straight passes covering 18, 15 and 11 yards against an LSU defense that was giving some room short. McCarron took one shot at the end zone, the ball falling to the turf when both the receiver and the defender fell down.
But, with a much shorter throw, he hit paydirt.
Alabama has not been behind in the fourth quarter since 2010, and sure didn't have much experience at playing with a deficit in 2012. The Tide arrived in Baton Rouge having trailed for a grand total of 15 seconds this season — one play against Mississippi — and when McCarron took off on a 9-yard touchdown run with just 11 second left in the first half it looked like a repeat of last January's national championship game.
But LSU was determined not to turn in another embarrassing performance like the one that ended last season. The Tigers managed only 92 yards and five first downs at the Superdome; this time, they put up 435 yards and 17 first downs against the nation's top-ranked defense.
It still wasn't enough.
"I told the players they would have to overcome a lot of adversity to win a game here," Saban said. "Things went bad. The momentum changed. But they kept their poise, kept playing, kept competing. I've never been prouder of as bunch of guys."
Alleman's 38-yard field goal gave LSU an early lead, but Alabama began to impose its will in the second period. McCarron completed four straight passes, Yeldon rushed five times for 40 yards and Eddie Lacy capped an 11-play, 92-yard drive by running it in from the 7.
McCarron finished 14 of 27 for 165 yards and has still yet to throw an interception this season. Lacy finished with 83 yards rushing, while Yeldon had 76.
LSU actually moved the ball rather effectively through much of the first half, but some silly blunders and Miles' questionable calls cost the Tigers dearly.
After Alabama's Cyrus Jones bobbled away a bouncing punt, Jerqwinick Sandolph recovered for LSU at the Tide 32. With the record Tiger Stadium crowd of 93,374 in a frenzy, Hill quickly ripped off a 19-yard run, but fullback J.C. Copeland picked up a needless personal foul when he plowed into an Alabama player after the play was over.
The officials stepped off 15 yards the other way, and LSU's drive imploded. Hill was stuffed for just a 1-yard gain, Mettenberger threw an incompletion and Landry was thrown for a 3-yard loss after hauling in a pass. LSU lined up for a 47-yard field goal attempt on fourth-and-12, but Miles decided to try one of his trademark gambles.
It backfired badly.
Brad Wing, the holder, took the snap and tossed a short pass to Alleman. Miles was counting on his 5-foot-11, 183-pound kicker to outrun the defense, which he's done it before, but the Crimson Tide wasn't fooled at all. Alleman was dragged down for a 2-yard loss, preserving a 7-3 lead.
Getting the ball back with just over a minute remaining in the half, Alabama moved quickly down the field for a touchdown that many thought had broken LSU's back.
Norwood hauled in an 8-yard pass and stepped out of bounds with 16 seconds left. McCarron dropped back into the pocket and spotted a huge hole right up the middle. The junior never even hesitated, taking off on 9-yard touchdown run without being touched.
Hill's touchdown closed the gap, and Miles called for an onside kick. Kicker James Hairston dribbled the ball forward and actually fooled the Tide, falling on the ball beyond the necessary 10 yards. But he had touched the ball a yard too soon when it bounced backward unexpectedly.
"We had an opportunity to take the momentum of the game," Miles said. "It bounced the wrong way."
For LSU, it's wait 'til next year.
"I like how they fought," Miles said. "The good news is: they will fight again. They learned a tremendous lesson today."
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