TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – John Chavis got in the press box elevator at Bryant-Denny Stadium with his eyes glistening. A hand clapped him on the shoulder. Then another one.
As the door closed, the LSU defensive coordinator did not smile, did not speak. He appeared on the verge of tears, and acknowledged later that emotion was surging through him.
The game had just ended. The Tigers had won a Cro-Magnon masterpiece against Alabama, 9-6 in overtime. Across 3 hours and 21 minutes, no player set foot in the end zone in possession of the ball. Chavis had watched his defenders compete with a ferocity and hit with a savagery that, in 2011, could only happen in the Southeastern Conference – and even by the bruising standards of the league, this was an exceptionally brutal night of football.
Asked if this was the most physical game he'd been involved in, the 22-year SEC veteran thought for a moment and said, "I would think so."
His players agreed.
"It was a classical battle," said defensive end Sam Montgomery, who had two key sacks. "It should have been on pay-per-view."
"I'm beat up," said safety Eric Reid, one of the LSU heroes with six tackles and a huge interception. "I'll have to sit in the ice tub for maybe an hour."
At least when the Tigers get gingerly out of bed Sunday morning, feeling the game's toll in their muscles and joints, they'll do it as the undefeated and undisputed No. 1 team in the land – in the pole position to play for the BCS national championship in friendly New Orleans yet again. The Alabama players will be just as sore, but without the balm of victory to help ease the pain.
"The fans can be disappointed, the coaches can be disappointed, everybody that is associated with the University of Alabama can be disappointed, but none of them feel worse than the players," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. "They put their heart and soul into this."
Because the margin between the two was so thin – Reid estimated that if they played 100 times, each would win 50 – the possibility of a BCS title game rematch is real.
There will be plenty of caterwauling in the coming days and weeks about the inartistic nature of the game. There will be large factions from outside Dixie who would rather see Oklahoma State's pyrotechnic offense or superstar quarterback Andrew Luck get a title game shot at LSU. Let the debate begin.
But understand this: the biggest reason the offenses looked that bad was because the defenses are that good. Dominant defense was the obvious storyline coming in – obvious to everyone but the endearingly odd Les Miles, who said he believed his Tigers would score "35 to 45" – so this should not have come as a shock.
[Wetzel: Miles flips script as Tigers sink Tide]
So applaud the ugly, America. Don't let the score obscure the fact that this was a good game between great teams. Don't forget the fact that the biggest reason why the SEC has won five straight national titles was the kind of speed and slobber-knocking collisions on display here. Blunt-force football still has its place in the modern game.
In the Madden Culture, we tend to equate points with excellence. Before this game, the last regular-season matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the polls was in 2006, and when Ohio State beat Michigan 42-39, everyone hailed the game as a classic.
Then the Wolverines got dump-trucked in the Rose Bowl by USC and the Buckeyes got steamrolled by Florida for the national title, and we realized that neither team was fast enough or stout enough defensively to win a title.
Keep that in mind while you enjoy the touch-football scorefests you see every Saturday in the Big 12. You want an overtime game where the winner scores in the 50s? Watch a replay of Stanford-USC. Tickled by quarterbacks who don't have to run for their lives or throw into tight spaces? Check out Russell Wilson and Tajh Boyd.
All those offenses would look a lot less pretty and productive against these guys.
Alabama might have had four touchdown plays against any other defense in America. LSU probably would have had three. Instead, daylight kept disappearing for running backs and receivers, as defenders closed on the ball with stunning speed.
"We had the right plan," Miles said. "It was just the wrong defense we were going against."
Alabama can easily say the same thing. An A.J. McCarron bomb in the first quarter to Darius Hanks would have been six against a cornerback less fleet than Morris Claiborne, who got his hands on the pass in the end zone to break it up. (Result of drive: blocked field goal.) A busted coverage that led to a 39-yard completion from McCarron to beast back Trent Richardson probably would have ended up in the end zone instead of at the LSU 19. (Result of drive: field goal.) Another McCarron bomb, this time to Kenny Bell, also fell incomplete in the end zone amid blanket double coverage. (Result of drive: field goal.) And receiver Marquis Maze's startling pass out of the wildcat formation in the fourth quarter looked like a game-winning play – until safety Eric Reid sprinted back into the play. (Result of drive: interception at the 1-yard line.)
The Reid interception pretty well epitomized LSU's relentless defensive effort on the night. When Maze faked a jet-sweep handoff and set himself to throw his first pass of the season, tight end Michael Williams looked wide open.
[Recap: LSU 9, Alabama 6 (OT)]
In the coaching box, Chavis was aghast. In preparing for this game, he told his defense Maze was a threat to throw. The proof was on video from 2010, when Maze had a passing touchdown against Florida out of the same formation and to the same player, Michael Williams.
Reid was supposed to be covering someone else on the play, but ran desperately in Williams' direction when he saw him running free.
"As a safety you're taught not to get beat deep," Reid said.
He closed on Williams but still was at a distinct disadvantage going after Maze's lobbed pass. Williams is a colossus – 6-feet-6, 269 pounds. Reid was giving away four inches and more than 60 pounds in this matchup, but liked his chances of coming down with the jump ball.
"I've got some hops," he said with a smile. "So thank God I was able to get it."
Reid ripped the ball away from Williams as they came down at the 1. Bama's best chance to score a touchdown was gone. And when heroic LSU punter Brad Wing bombed one a field-flipping 72 yards a couple of minutes later – another bad play by Maze, who didn't field the punt and let it roll forever – we were headed to overtime.
Once there, Alabama's offense unraveled. Four snaps yielded a loss of 10 yards, and the Tide watched its fourth missed field goal of the night flutter to the ground well off the mark.
[Photos: LSU edges Alabama in OT]
LSU closed the deal on its possession with – what else? – one last field goal. That's when Chavis and the other LSU assistants in the box headed to the elevator.
By the time they reached the visiting locker room, Miles had a gift for his defensive coordinator: the game ball.
Chavis gratefully accepted it, then told the room, "That ball will mean a lot once it gets everyone's name on it that was on the battlefield."
Those who battled Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium won't soon forget it. Their aching bodies won't let them.
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