Reliving the 'Game of the Century' on its 10th anniversary
Nervous energy circuited throughout Bryant-Denny Stadium on a night that promised to be one of the most memorable in college football history.
Billed as the “Game of the Century,” the 2011 matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama captured the nation’s attention well before the Tigers and Crimson Tide took the field on Nov. 5. An ESPN commercial hyping the game first aired on Oct. 23. During game week, the network’s College GameDay crew began its on-site coverage on Thursday, a day earlier than usual.
It’s rumored that an extra 100,000 ticketless fans crowded into Tuscaloosa, Ala., on game day in addition to the 101,821 people lucky enough to obtain a place inside college football’s epicenter that night.
“It was probably the most hyped atmosphere that I’ve ever experienced around a game, maybe even including a national championship game,” former Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones recalled. “I mean, it was such a buzz around campus. … It was really crazy. Every time you turned on any kind of sports network they were talking about it, breaking down every aspect of it. It felt a whole lot different than any regular-season game I’ve ever been a part of.”
The ramifications heading into the matchup were clear. The winner would all but lock up the SEC West title while maintaining a clear path to the BCS National Championship Game. The loser would concede control of its destiny in a non-playoff era of college football.
Over a grueling three hours and 21 minutes, Alabama and LSU lived up to the preceding hype. An anxious crowd stirred at every snap as the Tide and Tigers locked horns in a defensive battle that featured 45 future NFL draftees.
Alabama’s evening was fraught with frustration as its offense continued to stumble over itself in enemy territory while its kickers combined to miss 4 of 6 field-goal attempts. Those mistakes were finally punished in overtime as Drew Alleman’s 25-yard field goal secured a 9-6 victory for LSU, silencing a once-raucous Bryant-Denny while sinking the Tide into a sea of uncertainty.
Alabama was ultimately granted a rematch two months later during the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans. The Tide capitalized on its second chance, trampling the Tigers 21-0 to earn its second national title under Nick Saban. Still, while gratifying for Alabama, that game didn’t quite match the buzz and pageantry of its preceding matchup in Tuscaloosa.
This week’s meeting between No. 2 Alabama and LSU is devoid of the rivalry’s usual drama. The Tide still has its sights on a second straight national title, while the Tigers are looking to hold together what’s left of a disappointing season.
Nevertheless, when Alabama and LSU line up under the lights inside Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, it won’t be hard to remember that classic night in November 10 years ago.
A lot of talk
Trent Richardson didn’t need to be reminded about the magnitude of the 2011 matchup against LSU. However, that didn’t stop Tigers fans from making sure the game was always on his mind.
After laying down for bed the Monday before the game, the former Alabama running back remembers looking down at his phone which had been suddenly flooded with a series of unsavory messages.
“I was like, ‘What in the world is this?” Richardson recalled. “I’ve got people telling me ‘F-you,’ giving me the finger, mooning me. It was all ‘You ain’t nothing’ and ‘We’re going to whoop you’ and ‘Geaux Tigers!’ They got my number somehow, and from there it was non-stop.”
Richardson changed his number, but that didn’t shield him from his relentless hecklers, who somehow figured out his new contact information later in the week. The prank is nothing new to Alabama players as former quarterback John Parker Wilson and running back T.J. Yeldon have also had their numbers leaked over the years. They aren’t the only victims, either.
“I actually feel bad for Nick [Saban] and Miss Terry because they get it every year,” Richardson said. “They get onto them the worst. Every single time we play them, they are on them.”
Alabama players chose to do their talking on the field. From the kickoff, the matchup took on a chippy nature as players from both sides chirped back and forth at each other.
Leading the way for the Tide was 5-foot-9 sparkplug Marquis Maze, who had grown tired of hearing about the Tigers’ vaunted defense led by star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
“I was taking it to them because, me personally, I felt like we were being disrespected,” Maze said. “Everybody kept on asking me Mathieu this, Mathieu that. I’m like, ‘Y’all acting like my name ain’t Marquis.’ I got tired of hearing it. He made a lot of plays that year with strips and punt returns, but he hadn’t played anybody like me and our team.”
Maze helped set the tone for Alabama, making a nice return on the opening kickoff. After being brought down at the Tide’s 30-yard line the receiver quickly popped up to his feet where he met Mathieu face-to-face as the two jawed briefly back and forth.
“I remember Marquis Maze getting into it with all of them,” Richardson said with a laugh. “We called him ‘Little Dog,’ and he had that short-man syndrome, like Coach [Saban]. He never let people talk mess to us. He was getting on their tail.”
Spurred on by the early momentum, Alabama appeared primed to land the first punch as Richardson ripped off an 18-yard run on the opening play from scrimmage before picking up 22 more yards on a screen pass from quarterback AJ McCarron the next play.
At that point, a boisterous Bryant-Denny crowd was ready to have a say of its own.
“It was rocking,” Jones said of the atmosphere. “The whole game, the crowd was like a caged animal just waiting to break out. Unfortunately, we never really had the big play that allowed them to.”
Missed kicks and mental mistakes
Alabama’s hot start on offense was a mirage as its success quickly dried up after crossing midfield. Following Richardson’s 22-yard reception, the star back was stuffed for a loss of 5 yards. Two plays later, the Tide lined up for a 44-yard field goal attempt which kicker Cade Foster sent well wide of the right upright.
The shanked kick started a disturbing trend for Alabama as it continued to drive into LSU territory before sputtering when it mattered most. Much of that struggle can be credited to a stingy Tigers defense. However, Alabama managed to get in its own way on several occasions.
The Tide drove down to the LSU 23-yard line on its second possession but once again saw its drive stall as a substitution infraction coupled with a 6-yard loss by running back Eddie Lacy set up a 50-yard field-goal attempt which Foster once again sailed wide right.
Alabama’s third straight failed drive came after an interception from defensive back Robert Lester gave the Tide the ball close to midfield. Alabama proceeded to march down to the LSU 24-yard line before Maze slipped on a reverse handoff from Richardson for a 6-yard loss, ultimately leading to another long field-goal try.
Lining up from 49 yards out, Alabama elected to switch to short-range kicker Jeremey Shelley. The move made little difference as his low attempt was blocked.
“As a whole, it starts to deflate the team and deflates the energy a bit, to be honest,” former Alabama linebacker Jerrell Harris said of the three straight missed field-goal attempts. “But at the same time, we know we’re all humans, and you can’t expect everybody to be clicking on all cylinders every Saturday. The best thing you can do is pick up your teammate and let them know you’re going to do everything you can to help them pull out the win.”
Unfortunately for Alabama, its defense also suffered a couple of costly errors of its own on the night.
With the game tied at 3 in the third quarter, the Tide nearly set up its offense for an easy score as safety Mark Barron returned an interception back inside the Tigers’ 5-yard line. However, defensive lineman Josh Chapman was flagged for a block in the back during the return, moving the ball back to the LSU 35-yard line.
“That was definitely frustrating because we knew that we were controlling the game at that point,” Harris said. “So to not give our offense a better opportunity to score was hurtful. When your offense is struggling the way it was, you want to do everything you can to put them in the best position to score.”
Alabama ended up settling for a 46-yard field goal from Foster three plays later. In total, the Tide’s offense ran 12 plays inside LSU’s 30-yard line resulting in a loss of 14 yards and an interception.
“That game, it was like ‘How are we not getting in the end zone?’” Richardson said. “I’m still puzzled by it. To me, I felt like we were the better team, but missing four field goals and not getting the job done in their territory, we all know how that ended.”
A trick-play pick
Alabama nicknamed the formation its “bobcat package.” Lining up with Maze behind center, the shifty receiver offered more agility than the average Wildcat quarterback. It also helped that the Birmingham, Ala., native played a good bit of quarterback during his time at Tarrant High School.
Alabama utilized Maze’s arm a year earlier against Florida as the receiver delivered a perfectly-placed pass to tight end Michael Williams for a 19-yard touchdown. That was more or less the plan when the Tide used the formation again against LSU a year later.
Facing a first-and-10 from the Tigers 28-yard line with the game tied at 6 early in the fourth quarter, Maze took a snap behind center, faking a handoff to receiver DeAndrew White before dropping back for a pass.
At the time, Maze was dealing with a stiff ankle after taking a hit on the sideline during the first quarter. Throwing off the injured plant foot, the receiver lofted a pass that appeared to be hauled in by Williams at the LSU 1-yard line. However, the ball was wrestled away by LSU safety Eric Reid and ruled an interception.
The call drew plenty of criticism from the Alabama sideline which claimed that Williams had landed down with the ball before Reid tore it away on the ground. After review, the call on the field was confirmed, giving LSU possession for a game-changing turnover.
“The ruling was ruled wrong,” Maze said. “It was supposed to be our ball at the 1-yard line. That was the turning point if you really want to go back to it. We would have had a touchdown. First-and-goal from the 1, I don’t think they stop us four straight times.”
“Oh, I’m walking in the end zone if I get the ball there,” he said confidently. “I don’t care how, I would have found a way to get in that end zone there no matter what.”
While Richardson said Maze’s pass generally worked in practice, he admits he was a little frustrated with his lack of carries inside of scoring territory on the night. The star back recorded a game-high run of 24 yards the play before the interception and appeared to be making headway against a tired LSU defense.
Richardson led Alabama with 89 yards on the ground and 80 yards through the air on the night but did not receive a handoff inside the LSU 30-yard line.
“I was disappointed because I expected them to put the ball in my hands,” Richardson said. “For me, it was like I didn’t want to let nobody down. I was like, ‘This is my team, I need to find a way to score.’ That play [with Maze] was a great play for real, but I wish I would have had that chance down there.”
A vow, a miracle and a date with destiny
Maze remembers predicting Alabama’s rematch against LSU minutes after Alleman’s game-winning kick sucked the life out of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Although, not every Tide player left the field as confident that night.
“After the game, I was down about it because I felt like I let my team down,” Richardson said. “But when Nick talked to us, he said ‘Guys, if we just follow the process, I’m telling you, we’ll get a chance to rematch with these guys.’ I don’t know if he believed it, but at that time he made me a believer. After that, we worked our tails off.”
The following week, Richardson addressed his teammates, telling them that he felt as though he let them down while promising never to do it again. Along with that proclamation, the junior urged his teammates to take the same vow moving forward.
“Pretend there’s a blank sheet of paper in front of you and sign it with me,” Richardson said at the time. “I will do my job. I will do it to the highest point. I will set the tone, and I will worry about my position. I will hold everybody accountable. I will hold myself accountable.”
Alabama’s narrow defeat dropped it just one spot to No. 3 in the BCS Standings as Oklahoma State took the second spot behind LSU. The Tide rebounded the following week making easy work of Mississippi State in a 24-7 victory.
Then, Alabama received the break it needed.
An unusual excitement began to build inside the Tide’s team hotel during the Friday night before its game against Georgia Southern the next day. The televisions inside each players’ room were tuned to the same channel as an upstart Iowa State team was on the verge of upsetting No. 2 Oklahoma State. By the time the Cyclones ran in the game-winning touchdown in double overtime, Alabama’s curfew for the night was thrown out the window.
“Everyone just simultaneously opened the doors up to Hotel Capstone and was running around celebrating,” Jones recalled. “At that time we knew we were going to have another shot at this thing.”
Sure enough, Alabama secured a spot in the BCS National Championship Game as the final standings gave the tide a BCS score of .942, slightly ahead of No. 3 Oklahoma State at .933.
Inspired by its earlier defeat, Alabama went on to exact revenge over LSU, shutting out the Tigers 21-0 while holding them to just 92 total yards and not allowing them to cross the 50-yard line until the fourth quarter.
“I think to be honest with you, everything happened the way it was supposed to happen,” Maze said. “Yeah, it would have been nice to win the first game, but maybe if we win that game we still end up playing them again. Not just that, maybe they beat us in the championship game because they lost before. So I think it happened the way it was supposed to have."
Added Harris: “At that point, we were ready for them. It’s a weird feeling, but it almost felt like destiny.”