Long Days Beyond a Death Valley Night

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On the morning and afternoon after, the pain remained. Before 93,374 on Nov. 3 in the old building known as Tiger Stadium, but more affectionately dubbed Death Valley, Alabama and its hated coach Nick “Benedict Arnold” Saban broke the LSU loyalists' hearts for the second time in 10 months.

But unlike the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 9, a day that will live in infamy on the Bayou as the Tide completely caged the Fighting Tigers in the Superdome, 21-0, LSU was in the hunt. The record crowd -- including my son Alex, an LSU junior studying biology and plant genetics and I -- was in full throat and furor for most of the contest. And with good reason: LSU, which had won 22 consecutive contests at home and stood at 36-1 under Saban’s successor Les Miles on Saturday nights in Baton Rouge, was the better team most of the night.

The football day began, though, many hours before the game kicked off at 7:11 (CT) or so in CBS primetime.

Yellow Cab driver Jay picked me up almost 12 hours before and riffed off a comedian who shares his surname. Whereas Robin once observed that cocaine was God’s way of saying you have too much money, the weekend cabbie said the same about a purple-and-yellow LSU-striped Lamborghini parked in front of one of the houses along fraternity row.

I arrived at the Parade Grounds, the iconic Memorial Tower in the background, shortly after 8 a.m., hours after some of Alex’s buddies had entered ESPN’s Home Depot sponsored Game Day moshpit, TV. (For the record, Lee Corso ultimately posed in pachyderm head dress.)

Signs emerged through the early morning fog, ranging from the obvious “Shaq (topped by an image of LSU’s favorite basketball big man, Shaquille O’Neal) and the Tigers are kings of the Jungle” and “Ware Them Out” (junior running back Spencer almost did with a huge play off a short crossing pattern) to the Mettenbergian -- the beleaguered LSU QB Zack Mettenberg was hailed, ‘Love the ‘Stache’ and derided, “Nothing tastes better than a Mettenberger.”

There was a shout-out to Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Elaine Benis and LSU’s defensive end Barkevious Mingo, “Maybe a Mingo Ate Yo Baby”;  a combination Star Wars and Pedro Martinez taunt against Saban, courtesy of a Darth Vader-garbed Mike The Tiger mascot, who maintained he was Nick's Daddy; and a reference to Adam Sandler’s tribute to Cajun cinema, The Water Boy and his Bobby Boucher character: “My Mommy Says Nick Saban is the Devil.” Saban was also alternately vilified as Little Nicky, Tiger Traitor Bait, and a Keebler Elf. 

Then, there were the censured – Alex's buddy Kevin’s “AJ McCarron Wears Ass-less Chaps” entry was tackled by ESPN’s production team, which also ignored a prominent Osama Bin Saban sign in front of the Home Depot screen, where my son, his girlfriend Rachel, buddy Nate and I held court. Speaking of being held high: Rachel grabbed a moment of TV fame when Alex lifted her into frame for a passing camera. 

Later message arrivals -- “Hey AJ, your mom can roll my tide,” and “Mrs. McCarron, Call Me Maybe,” both featuring  Bama QB’ McCarron’s well-endowed mother -- were permitted, while arguably the funniest placard of the day, “Nick Saban Uses The Shake Weight,” flanked by a photo of the Tidemaster’s hand superimposed around the exercise object, gathered attention all morning. (See photos here.)

Nearby, five Batmobiles, including the Adam West model, were parked, large black promo props for the Dec. 4 release of the Dark Knight Rises DVD.

Tailgating -- thanks to Kevin and Dom and Raegan and her family for their hospitality -- was tawdry  -- “I’d rather take a shower at Penn State than root for Alabama” appeared in a few of the bivouacs – and tight in all quarters and crannies around campus. Revelers, their passion perhaps propped up by red cups and jambalaya in hand, espoused confidence about the Tigers’ prospects over the seemingly vastly superior Tide.  

Unlike last year when LSU had everything working in all facets of the game, the Tigers have struggled to match the expectations brought by their near perfection of 2011. A bevy of injuries have reconstituted the offensive line and cost the club its fastest running back, Alfred Blue. Tyron Mathieu, the Heisman Trophy finalist DB and punt returner, was booted from the team in August, the defrocked Honey Badger taking too much of what he wanted as far as the school and now Baton Rouge police officials are concerned when it comes to marijuana.

Mettenberger, the ballyhooed QB who was supposed to be the savior of an offense that didn’t cross midfield in the BCS title game mess, has been inaccurate and/or turf-stained, when not  beset by unimaginative play calls or drops from a wideout corps that doesn’t consistently gain separation. His 43.2% SEC completion ratio, combined with LSU’s season-long penchant for penalties and fumbles, made the Tigers a 9.5-point Death Valley dog against a team many pundits were positioning as one of the best  college teams ever.

Following an offensively inept 14-6 loss to Florida on Oct. 6, I beseeched the sports gods. Please just make the LSU-Bama rematch in the Nov. 3 night carry true standings significance: I didn't want the contest to merely trade on rivalry relevance and the Bayou brethren’s hatred for Saban, who left LSU after winning the 2003 national title for the Miami Dolphins, only to turn up in Tuscaloosa.

In order to do that, the Tigers had to hold off the Old Ball Coach’s South Carolina Gamecocks and then shut down Texas A&M’s freshman QB sensation Johnny “Football” Manziel. Given the strength of LSU's defense led by Mingo, fellow D-lineman Sam Montgomery, safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter and the emergence of freshman stud running Jeremy Hill, the No. 5 Tigers were still positioned to pounce on the hated Elephants in the SEC West jungle.

As Alex -- his Baton Rouge journey, at least from a pigskin perspective, already beginning to wind down – observed as we sat in our end zone seats, he would never experience anything like this again. This was his last undergraduate home game against Bama, with the purple and gold’s national championship hopes still flickering against the No. 1 team in the BCS.

At that point, an already grateful father looked skyward and asked for a little more.

Early on, the football deities were kind. LSU moved the ball much better than Bama, Mettenberger was sharp and the Tigers took a 3-0 lead -- it should have been seven, Kadron Boone dropped a potential 74-yard TD pass. Then, as I feared, Bama began living up to its reputation, marching 92 yards over 11 plays to grab a 7-3 lead. Its defense tightened, sacking Mettenberger, before alms arrived from above in the form of a flubbed Bama punt return.

LSU, though, ultimately wound up on the wrong side of the football Fates, following four key decisions by Miles.

*The Mad Hatter ordered a failed fake field goal toss to kicker Drew Alleman, after the aforementioned Tigers’ fumble recovery.

*Moments later, a drive was short-circuited by FB J.C. Copeland’s unnecessary roughness penalty following a 20-yard run by Hill to Bama’s 13-yard-stripe. That miscue turned malignant when Alleman’s 54-yard attempt (maybe here’s where Miles could have faked, or better still, punted) fell well short and McCarron scored on a scramble seconds before the half expired, giving Alabama a 14-3 intermission advantage.

*Following Hill's one-yard plunge that cut the deficit to 14-10 late in the third quarter, an onside kick recovery came up a yard short. LSU and Miles dodged what could have been a field-position-deficit, game-ending bullet when McCarron and T.J. Yeldon botched a handoff exchange deep in Tiger territory.

*After Mettenberg hit Landry with an NFL-quality back shoulder fade to put LSU ahead 17-14 in our end zone (thanks, Dan!) that made the crowd stand up and roar as one early in the fourth, the Tigers marched to the Bama 24. Here, Miles eschewed a field goal attempt for a Ware QB sneak out of a bunched Wildcat formation that never had a prayer. How about a fake dive and a left-side pitch to Hill to the open side of the field?  That Ware and Copeland hijacked fourth-quarter Hill touches and LSU often snapped the ball with 10 seconds remaining on the play clock also elicited Milesian moaning from our section of the peanut gallery.

When LSU’s penultimate possession went wide with Allemann’s 45-yard FG try, the stage was set for McCarron’s five-for-five last-minute heroics, capped by a 28-yard screen pass TD to Yeldon with 51 ticks remaining.

Whereas Bama was the better team at Bryant Denny Stadium during the Nov. 5, 2011 battle of the century that solidified LSU at No. 1 via its 9-6 overtime triumph (courtesy of Eric Reid and Mike Williams) and produced CBS's best college football ratings since 1989, this time the Tigers outgained the Tide, almost doubled their time of possession and won the turnover battle, 2-0.

But McCarron, who had been throttled by the LSU D throughout the second half until the final minute, finished by crying tears of joy on the sideline. In reflecting on the game in the weeks and years to come, at least one who was in the stands that warm Nov. 3 will hold back a tear when thinking – I’m not sure if I can bear to watch the CBS replay on our DVR -- about what could have been after that long day and night in Death Valley.

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