There are two ways to unpack Alabama’s 46-41 loss to LSU on Saturday.
The first is to do so carefully, item by item, unwrapping every play in what ended up as a one-possession game as carefully as if it was Grandma’s fine china, pondering why the football squirted away from Tua Tagovailoa like a plump oyster as Alabama seemed headed for an opening touchdown, or why walk-on punter Ty Perine, clearly on the biggest stage of his life, dropped a snap, or why 100 other little things, like a hands-to-the-face call that negated the only offensive holding call on LSU all day and so on. There were so many of those moments in the first half that LSU took a 20-point lead into the locker room, and even a furious second half offensively couldn’t bring Alabama all the way out of the hole.
The other approach would be to dump it all in the floor, survey the broken dishes and bent spoons and all the rest of the clutter as one big pile of pain and assess it in those simple terms.
To win the game, Alabama needed a stop in the fourth quarter. Defense wins championships. Of all the many truths of the Nick Saban Era at Alabama, that one has always been the truest, a cliche that transcended cliche. It didn’t mean that you didn’t need a good offense but it did mean that you build a team around the defense and sometimes you even build an offense that compliments that defense.
The great irony on Saturday was when it became dark enough for red lights at Bryant-Denny Stadium, LSU ran them all.
Times have changed. No one argues that. No one doesn’t recognize that Tua Tagovailoa has been great, even historic, for Alabama. That’s why, in looking at the final three minutes of the first half, one decision that shouldn’t be second-guessed was the decision to take a shot with Tagoaviloa throwing with 30 seconds or so remaining. The result was a disaster, an interception that gave LSU a bonus of seven points at the end of the half. A meteor once struck the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. This catastrophe was worse. But that is hindsight and you can’t really blame Alabama’s coaches for trying to squeeze points out of Tagovailoa’s left arm there since that is what the entire season has been built upon: outscore the other side with Tua and the receivers.
Tua worked his magic in the second half, as well as anyone could. He put four touchdowns on the board, despite clearly having ankle-based limitations. Three times in the fourth quarter, he brought Alabama to within six points or loss. All three times, Alabama couldn’t get a stop.
Give LSU credit. Their offense is no joke. Joe Burrow is accurate, smart and fiercely competitive. Clyde Edwards-Hilaire made the runs and broke the tackles that bigger LSU backs never seemed able to shake. But at some point, as it almost always has for a decade, Alabama’s defense needed to rise up. It didn’t. LSU’s final three possessions were two sustained touchdown marches and then victory formation.
There are plausible reasons why: injuries to two experienced linebackers have caused problems all season, although Alabama outgunned them. The depth, experience and, in some cases, talent is not what it was in 2011, certainly, and not in 2015 either.
Some defenders played well. Terrell Lewis was mighty in the loss. Anfernee Jennings, Christian Barmore, Xavier McKinney and Patrick Surtain all looked good on the defensive eye test, but not enough others, not enough times
Nick Saban also made an interesting point after. You have to go where the river flows, and Alabama has done that, but there is a hidden cost. Big plays are wonderful, but without offensive balance — the clutch first down, the time-consuming drive — there is more pressure than ever on the defense.
Can that be fixed in what remains of 2019? Probably not. There has been a lot of post-game speculation — gleefully, in most of the nation — that this five-point loss to the presumptive No. 1 team will keep Alabama out of the CFP games for the first time ever. Perhaps it will. Eventually, all things — even streaks — stop.
Especially when you cannot get the stop you need.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt