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LSU Stared the Alabama Death Machine in the Face and Survived

Joe Burrow and the Tigers should have blown Bama out. They didn’t, and it made Saturday’s win all the more impressive.

LSU v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Watching the two most important LSU Tigers after they won the biggest game either has ever been a part of, I realized I couldn’t imagine the two sharing a conversation. On the one hand, there was head coach Ed Orgeron, the Cajun God of Energy, who hollered, weeping, about how no. 2 LSU’s 46-41 victory over third-ranked Alabama was another step toward his goal of bringing a championship to Louisiana. His shirt was drenched, and I needed a replay to confirm that it was due to a Gatorade bath and not a superhuman amount of sweat.

On the other, there was quarterback Joe Burrow, a mild-mannered coach’s son from Ohio, who calmly aw-shucksed a question about his Heisman hopes while keeping his heart rate below 80.

How could these people work together, let alone talk to one another? Do they even eat the same foods?

The LSU-Alabama game has been a weight on the entire state of Louisiana for almost a decade now. In 2011, LSU beat Alabama 9-6 in one of the ugliest and most beautiful college football games of the century. Since then, the Tigers were 0-8 in the rivalry. They lost blowouts (including three shutout losses). They lost thrillers, with Alabama scoring in the final minute in 2012 and winning in overtime in 2014. Each year, LSU entered with a high ranking, a squad of former five-star recruits, and, unfortunately, hope. Each time, Alabama proved itself as the predominant program in college football.

But Saturday, Orgeron and Burrow proved why LSU fans are thrilled and thankful to have both. After seven years of falling short against the dominant college football program of the 2010s, the Tigers finally took down the Crimson Tide. They emerged with the pop of a Coach O pregame yell, taking a 33-13 halftime lead on the strength of three turnovers and three Burrow passing touchdowns. And they held on in the face of a furious Bama comeback, thanks to the composure of Burrow, who twice scrambled for key third-down conversions as the Tigers held on for their first win against the Tide in eight years.

In the first half of Saturday’s game, Alabama screwed up in ways it never screws up. We saw LSU receivers completely unguarded, strolling into the end zone.

We saw Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, in his return from an ankle injury, simply drop the ball on his way to scoring a touchdown.

We saw Alabama making a critical special teams error. (Wait, actually, we do see that in Alabama games pretty regularly.)

Alabama dropped touchdown passes, took the field with 12 players, and gave a crucial fourth-and-1 carry to a 5-foot-11 freshman wide receiver. At one point, LSU scored a touchdown, Tagovailoa threw an interception, and LSU scored another touchdown in the span of three plays. Alabama looked more like the Scarlet Knights than the Crimson Tide.

But the Tide woke up in the second half. After punting on its first drive of the third quarter, Alabama put together back-to-back-to-back-to-back 75-plus-yard touchdown drives. Tagovailoa leading second-half comebacks is something we have seen in Alabama football games before. Apparently, the only thing scarier than regular Alabama is Zombie Alabama, undead and unstoppable.

Thing is, LSU matched it. For all the Burrow hype, the MVP of the game was probably Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a running back with a delightful blend of grace and brutality. He can deftly spin past defenders:

And also cruelly bully his way through them:

Burrow didn’t score either of the final touchdowns, but excelled on late drives through the air and with his legs. He entered the game with the highest pass completion percentage in college football history, 78.8 percent—and somehow, against Alabama’s defense, improved it. He finished the day 31-of-39 for 393 yards with three touchdowns while running for another 64 yards. For all the aw-shucksing, the Heisman is probably his.

Alabama’s second-half comeback was, in the grand scheme of the 2019 football season, critical. Teams have made the College Football Playoff with a loss before, provided the loss was by a few points and not by a few touchdowns. By trimming a hideous 20-point deficit to a respectable five points, the Tide can finish the season 11-1, with a mild loss with an injured quarterback to the likely no. 1 team in the country. That could be good enough to earn a playoff bid.

But LSU doesn’t need to worry about whether its loss was good. After losing blowouts and heartbreakers to Alabama, the Tigers somehow blew the Tide out and then outlasted them in a shoot-out, all in one game. With Orgeron’s fire and Burrow’s ice, LSU exorcised the Alabama ghost that’s stared at it from across the division for the last decade.