BATON ROUGE, La. - This is what Heisman Trophy candidates and No. 1 ranked teams do.
Left for dead after a miserable second half, the Alabama offense and quarterback AJ McCarron roared to life with a 72-yard drive in the final 1:34 and scored with 51 seconds left to stun No. 5 LSU 21-17 before a record crowd of 93,374 at Tiger Stadium.
McCarron passed for all 72 yards on the final drive, the final 28 to tailback T.J. Yeldon on a perfectly executed screen pass. Yeldon grabbed the pass and darted the distance barely touched, quieting the Tiger Stadium crowd that had been so rowdy most of the night.
The Tigers' last gasp ended when quarterback Zach Mettenberger was sacked, triggering a Crimson Tide celebration that was much a sigh of relief as anything else after the closest call this season.
"They kept their poise and we kept playing and we kept competing. I've never been prouder of a bunch of guys to overcome adversity," Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the top-ranked Crimson Tide kept their hopes of repeating as national champions alive. "We haven't had to use the two-minute offense a lot, but we scored two touchdowns in the last two minutes (of the first half and second halves).
"That last drive is something I'll never forget. A lot of tough football; this was a very physical game. I can tell you our guys are going to be as sore as they've ever been."
The final flurry allowed McCarron to finish with 165 yards after he misfired on his first six throws in the second half.
Mettenberger outplayed the Tide's Heisman hopeful most of the night and finished with a career-best 298 yards. Yeldon had 76 rushing yards and the game-winning TD, while Eddie Lacy ran for 83. LSU freshman Jeremy Hill carved out 107 rushing yards against a Bama defense that came in allowing only 54.8 yards a game on the ground.
As well as the Tigers played - they outgained Alabama 435 yards to 331 - two missed field goals and a botched fake kick were costly.
Senior Drew Alleman was wide left on a 45-yard attempt with 1:34 to play, which gave the Tide the glimmer of hope. Alleman also missed a 54-yarder near the end of the first half, which set up another rapid-fire touchdown drive.
Alleman was also involved on the fake, taking a short pass from holder Brad Wing for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-12.
Afterward, Tigers coach Les Miles shouldered blame for the loss, pointing to the fake field goal and 54-yard attempt.
"Our football team came in here to play to win," Miles said. "We went after it, and thought we played extremely hard."
LSU produced a pair of second-half touchdowns - after not scoring any in the previous 10 quarters against the Tide.
Jeremy Hill soared over the right side for a 1-yard score to cap a long drive in the third quarter and pull the Tigers within 14-10.
Then after the LSU defense survived an unsuccessful onside kick when Sam Montgomery smothered a T.J. Yeldon fumble, the Tigers pounced in front when Mettenberger heaved a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry with 12:58 to play.
After that, LSU left it up to its defense and that was good strategy.
The Tigers suffocated the Crimson Tide in the second half, forcing three-and-outs on four of the first five Alabama possessions and allowing only 49 yards until the final Tide series.
But that 72-yard march is what will define the latest fist fight between the SEC West's top two teams.
"The defense gave up two big drives," Mile said. "That's uncharacteristic of them."
The two teams went to halftime after two completely different quarters, with LSU controlling the first and Alabama flipping the script in the second.
The Tigers were humming offensively for 15 minutes, with 112 total yards and eight first downs - a vast contrast from the national title game when they didn't cross midfield until the fourth quarter.
Freshman Jeremy Hill found big holes and ran through the normally stifling Alabama defense for 51 yards in the first quarter and that helped set up Drew Alleman's 38-yard field goal on the Tigers' second series.
The Tide offense couldn't do much with the ball on two first-quarter possessions with only 51 yards and two first downs.
Things changed immediately in the second, though, as the teams reversed roles.
Alabama hummed down the field on a 92-yard drive, capped off by a seven-yard TD run by Eddie Lacy, giving the Tide a 7-3 lead.
LSU twice had a shot to draw closer, but a costly penalty and two curious coaching calls thwarted those chances.
Jerqwinick Sandolph smothered a muffed punt to put the Tigers in business at the Alabama 32-yard line midway through the quarter.
Hill quickly ignited an already feverish crowd when he blasted 19 yards. But fullback J.C. Copeland inexplicably hit a Bama defender after the whistle for a personal foul that all but wiped out Hill's gain.
The penalty also disrupted the Tigers' rhythm, and they gained only 3 yards on three plays from the 30. With Alleman lined up for a 47-yard field goal, Miles called for the fake.
After the defense forced an Alabama three-and-out, the Tigers finally got a big play on offense again when Spencer Ware took a short pass and rambled 38 yards. Two short passes to Jarvis Landry and Nic Jacobs for 8 yards apiece got LSU to the 35 - just on the edge of Alleman's range.
But a 2-yard loss on second down and an incompletion on third left the Tigers facing fourth-and-2 from the 37. Instead of going for it or punting, Miles sent Alleman out to attempt a 54-yard kick that fell woefully short.
That decision came back and stung the Tigers when Alabama pieced together a flawless 2-minute drive. McCarron was clutch with three passes for 37 yards, the biggest a 19-yard pickup on a middle screen to Christion Jones.
A pass interference call on LSU put the Tide at the 17 and from there McCarron hit Kevin Norwood for 8 yards. On second down, McCarron watched the middle of the field open up and sprinted 9 yards to end zone for the 14-3 lead.
"I told our guys we're going to have to keep fighting, keep punching until we knocked them out," Saban said. "Our guys really don't look at the scoreboard."