Tigers must overcome themselves to reach title games
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There is one team No. 3 LSU will have to overcome if it wants to play for another national championship in the Louisiana Superdome. That team is neither No. 1 Ohio State nor No. 5 Oregon, the one-loss team that will expect to move ahead of the Tigers in the rankings.
If you saw LSU beat No. 17 Alabama, 41-34, at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, the answer is obvious. The team LSU must overcome wears purple and gold and can't seem to stand to win by more than a touchdown, no matter how much it dominates the line of scrimmage.
The team LSU must overcome is the team it practices against three days a week and even showers with. Let's be frank: Until the Tigers get out of their own way, they can't win the national championship.
"I can tell you, that's as many mistakes as I've seen in a football game in my life," LSU coach Les Miles said. "Maybe in a couple of seasons I've coached. I can promise you this: That will never happen again. I promise you that."
The good news is that LSU (8-1, 5-1) is one victory from clinching an SEC West championship. The good news is that, stunned by Javier Arenas' 61-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave Alabama a 34-27 lead with 7:33 to play, the Tigers scored 14 points while holding Alabama to only one first down in its final three possessions.
The bad news is that, in a game LSU's fans desperately wanted to win to humiliate their former coach, the Crimson Tide's Nick Saban, Alabama looked like the better-coached team. Alabama stayed in a game it had no business being in.
"Our football team will be, uh, coached very aggressively from this point forward," Miles said.
The Tigers committed three turnovers, all second-quarter interceptions of Matt Flynn, and blew a 17-3 lead before halftime. The Tigers also committed 14 penalties that cost them 130 yards, taking a spoonful of every entrée on the penalty buffet: late hits, unsportsmanlike conduct and dead ball personal fouls, among others.
"Quality guys, veterans, leaders of our football team," Miles said, referring to his players who attracted the yellow laundry. "I'm not talking about freshmen. I'm talking about guys that had been through the wars."
Those penalties smoothed the path for the Crimson Tide to get back into the game. With LSU ahead 17-3, Alabama had the ball on its 18-yard line, third-and-12. A blitz forced John Parker Wilson to get rid of the ball early, and it fell incomplete.
Here came another punt, and here came great field position. But no -- Tyson Jackson roughed Wilson, and Alabama had a first down.
On the next snap, Tigers' defensive backs Jonathan Zenon and Curtis Taylor blew coverage of Alabama wideout DJ Hall, who ran right past both of them. Wilson connected with Hall for a 67-yard touchdown, and Alabama trailed, 17-10.
"And that was the start of a number of miscues on our part," Miles said.
Such as Flynn's three picks, two of which Alabama converted into 10 points. The Tide took a 20-17 lead in the final minute of the first half when Keith Brown outjumped freshman safety Chad Jones for a 29-yard touchdown catch.
Flynn would bounce back, completing 12 of 24 passes in the second half for 202 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones would bounce back, too. With the score 34-34 and Alabama facing a second-and-12 at its own 30 with less than two minutes to play, Jones fired through the middle of the LSU defensive line to sack Wilson and strip him of the ball. Taylor fell on it at the Tide 3-yard line. A crash into the line and a leap over it, both by tailback Jacob Hester, produced the Tigers' winning touchdown with 1:26 to play.
All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who had seven tackles, including a sack, despite visibly limping on his gimpy right knee, promised that the Tigers understand the problem.
"When our backs are against the wall," Dorsey said, "it's like we play the best. We're trying to get out of that. Trust me. Just as hard as it for our fans to watch, it's hard for us to play like that. We're trying to get out of it. But when we need to make plays, we make plays."
If you want to be an optimist, you could say that any team that commits three turnovers and 14 penalties that cost it 130 yards yet still beats a ranked team on the road must be pretty good. But you will watch a lot of football before you see another team give up 34 points while allowing only 234 yards of total offense.
There is a pattern here. The Tigers' past four games have been decided in the final minutes. They have won three of them. But LSU is a team Mel Kiper Jr. thinks has more first-round draft choices than most of the teams in the NFC West. Tigers fans should still have some fingernails.
"Unfortunately, I aged 20 years in the last four weeks," LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pellini said. "My wife doesn't recognize me anymore."
Miles praised the "fighting heart" he left behind in the winning locker room. But he sounded frustrated about the gifts that kept on giving.
"I've got to give them the enlightenment: We don't have to play this poorly!" Miles said. He repeated himself. "We don't have to play this poorly. We don't have to do this to ourselves. Against a quality opponent, you don't have to extend their opportunities. Get us off the field when we need to."
It appeared as if a good night's sleep and a day of watching game video would not sway Miles in his determination to exact a price from his players for their mistakes.
"That will be addressed slowly and painfully and over a long amount of time," Miles said. "I know we have to play another game Saturday, but we may not get to that game until Tuesday."
When Miles entered his postgame news conference, he cradled in his left arm a game ball awarded him by Flynn and Hester. If the gesture was meant to soften him up in the coming week, it didn't work.
Miles said with what he has in store for his team, "This will be the last gift they give me for quite some time."
He hopes his team is through giving gifts, period. If LSU does get out of its own way, the Tigers have a great chance at playing in New Orleans on Jan. 7.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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