TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Eye of the Tiger and Dixieland Delight.
Here it was, the renewal of one of the sport’s most intense and physical rivalries unfolding in a glorious setting — a chilly Saturday night in the Deep South, amid a campus buzzing with booze and ball, two Hall of Fame coaches and a pair of dynamo quarterbacks.
The 2023 version of LSU-Alabama, or in this case, Alabama-LSU, evolved into a new-fashioned — not old — quarterback heavyweight fight. An offensive delight and a defensive debacle. A 42-28 Crimson Tide victory.
One Heisman Trophy contender entered and two Heisman Trophy contenders exited.
They combined to account for 756 of the 985 yards in the game and seven of the 10 touchdowns. They danced and dazzled, dished and dodged.
One threw a left hook and the other a right cross. They bounced off the mat, bounded off the ropes.
The fight was so close. This was no knockout but a judge’s decision. And we do mean close.
Jayden and Jalen completed the same amount of passes (15) for the same amount of yards (219), nearly equaled each other’s rushing (163 for Jayden and 155 for Jalen) and almost attempted the same amount of passes (Jayden 24 and Jalen 23).
Awesome. That too.
Walking off the field, Pete Jenkins, a longtime Nick Saban confidant now on the LSU coaching staff, had a look of amazement crawl across his face.
“Wow,” he said, “how about those quarterbacks?”
One in particular, Milroe, leapt into the Heisman conversation and turned back any critics still chirping about his abilities.
Can he really lead the Tide?
Can he survive the pressure cooker?
Is he a good enough passer?
“The naysayers,” said Bama lineman Seth McLaughlin, “he let a lot of people know.”
Have you ever seen a quarterback run over a safety and then, on the next play, drop a perfectly placed floater of a pass for a big gain?
What about one who can spin away from a linebacker, twist away from a defensive end, and then throw it 60 yards downfield?
Tell me that you’ve seen a quarterback turn the “tush push” into a 4-yard off-tackle touchdown?
Milroe did all of it Saturday night. Whether by design or not, he flashed a physical running style not seen at the position here since Jalen Hurts hummed Alabama’s offense.
Are the critics finally silenced? Will they go away?
“Well,” Milroe smiled, “we’re going to see.”
Milroe isn’t your typical quarterback. He’s got the speed of a running back, the strength of a linebacker and quickness like a defensive back. After the game, he stood among a hoard of reporters with a frame chiseled from granite.
He’s Jalen Milroe. And he’s not perfect. No, not perfect all.
During a 10-minute interview session, he made sure three different times to remind media members that he’s “not a finished product.”
Offered an opportunity to make his Heisman case, Milroe shakes off the question like he does so many defenders. “Nah,” he said. “I’m not anywhere I want to be.”
Where is that? Well, for starters, in the SEC championship game, which the Crimson Tide (8-1) can secure next week with a win at Kentucky. Or maybe in the College Football Playoff, which would mean winning an 11th straight game in Atlanta over presumptive East champion Georgia.
To get there, it’ll need to be more of this: a heavy dose of Milroe on the ground. His feet open up an offense that has dragged at times this season. His shoulder-lowering booms, his ankle-turning jukes, his speed on the perimeter.
They all resulted in a shocking statistic: Alabama converted 11 of 14 third-down attempts.
It was the Tide’s “most complete” game all year, Saban said. And while Daniels at times gashed his defense, Alabama’s D performed when it mattered most.
His team leading by a touchdown, edge rusher Dallas Turner swatted a Daniels pass into the air, his big mitt sending the ball tumbling into the arms of Terrion Arnold for a monumental interception in a game in which offensive possessions often led to offensive scores. The Tide scored moments later for a two-score lead they never lost.
Later, the Alabama defense knocked Daniels out of the game on a hit by edge rusher Dallas Turner.
“Our defense has shown resilience,” Saban said. “They make plays when we need to make them.”
So does Milroe. He seems to always be making plays.
On Saturday night, before celebrities and dignitaries in attendance — new NCAA president Charlie Baker, CNN’s Kaitlin Collins and Kid Rock, to name a few — from under the lights of Bryant-Denny Stadium and in front of millions watching at home, Jalen and Jayden wrote another dazzling chapter in this storied rivalry.
One Heisman contender? No, two.