BATON ROUGE, La. — With Alabama’s hopes of a second straight national title slipping away, A.J. McCarron shook off a dismal second half and guided the Crimson Tide right down the field.
Talk about a Saturday night stunner in Death Valley.
McCarron read an LSU blitz and flipped a screen pass to T.J. Yeldon, who did the rest on a 28-yard touchdown with 51 seconds remaining that gave the top-ranked Crimson Tide a 21-17 victory over No. 5 LSU.
Alabama (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) now has a clear path to the league championship game in Atlanta, and remains solidly on course to defend its national title in Miami.
But this one was a struggle. Led by embattled quarterback Zach Mettenberger, LSU (7-2, 3-2) fought back from a 14-3 halftime deficit with an offensive performance that was nothing like their dismal showing against the Tide in last season’s BCS championship game.
Jeremy Hill scored on a 1-yard run late in the third quarter, LSU’s first TD against Alabama since 2010 — a span of nearly three full games. Then Mettenberger threw perhaps the best pass of his LSU career, hooking up with Jarvis Landry on a 14-yard touchdown that put the Tigers ahead 17-14 with just under 13 minutes remaining.
LSU was on the verge of putting the game away, driving into Alabama territory and forcing coach Nick Saban to call his remaining timeouts. But Drew Alleman missed a 38-yard field goal, and McCarron took over from there.
He completed three straight passes to put Alabama in scoring position. Then, when LSU brought a corner blitz, he got the ball away quickly to Yeldon. The freshman running back broke one tackle and faked out another defender, racing to the end zone for the winning score.
“I’m really, really pleased with that last drive,” Saban said. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Before the final drive, McCarron was 1 of 7 for 0 yards in the second half. All was forgiven when he guided the Crimson Tide on a lightning-quick 72-yard drive, connecting with Kevin Norwood on three straight passes covering 18, 15 and 11 yards against an LSU defense that was giving some room short. McCarron took one shot at the end zone, the ball falling to the turf when both the receiver and the defender fell down.
But, with a much shorter throw, he hit paydirt on the very next play.
Mettenberger, who had gotten much of the blame for LSU’s lackluster offense, suddenly put it all together for the Tigers in the second half. But LSU couldn’t overcome the nation’s top-ranked team and some dubious calls by coach Les Miles.
The Mad Hatter kept reaching into his bag of tricks — and kept getting burned. A fake field goal was stuffed. An onside kick didn’t work. And going for it on fourth down in Alabama territory didn’t work out either.
“I wish I had a couple of my calls back,” Miles said. “That’s the way it goes.”
Mettenberger nearly bailed out his coach. He finished 24 of 35 for a career-best 298 yards, with 14 of those completions for 202 yards coming over the final two quarters.
Alabama has not been behind in the fourth quarter since 2010, and sure didn’t have much experience at playing with a deficit in 2012. The Tide arrived in Baton Rouge having trailed for a grand total of 15 seconds this season — one play against Mississippi — and when McCarron took off on a 9-yard touchdown run with just 11 second left in the first half it looked like a repeat of last January’s national championship game.
But LSU was determined not to turn in another embarrassing performance like the one in the Superdome, when a perfect season ended with a dismal 21-0 loss to the Crimson Tide. The Tigers managed only 92 yards and five first downs in that game; this time, they put up 435 yards and 17 first downs against the nation’s top-ranked defense.
It still wasn’t enough.
“I told the players they would have to overcome a lot of adversity to win a game here,” Saban said. “Things went bad. The momentum changed. But they kept their poise, kept playing, kept competing. I’ve never been prouder of as bunch of guys.”