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October 26, 2009

Upon Further Review: Tennessee at Alabama

So what makes a game epic?

A great moment? An amazing ending? Something you never seen or even considered possible happening? A clutch victory against a rival that can only be called heartbreaking for the losers? A win that leads to something greater?

Because all of those things occurred at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, the University of Alabama's 12-10 victory against Tennessee will go down as one of the key games in the series' already-illustrious history. It's blown away last year's final win against Phillip Fulmer, Roman Harper knocking the ball loose to save the 6-3 win in 2005, and even the five-overtime game in 2003.

This was the newest entry into Tide football lore. For years, people will remember and talk about senior nose tackle Terrence Cody's two blocked field goals, including the potential game-winner as time expired. So brace yourself for "Rocky Blocked" paraphernalia thanks to the "Mountain toppling Tennessee," but the No. 2 Crimson Tide also learned a few things about itself.

After five straight Southeastern Conference games, including a brutal stretch against Ole Miss, South Carolina and UT, Alabama now knows what happens when the defense wears down and how much its postseason hopes will ride with it if the passing game doesn't improve. It managed to win without scoring a touchdown, when it was tired, beat up and exhausted, which is the mark of both a good team, but also one that could see everything derailed on any given Saturday.

"It shows you, you talk about how fragile a season is in terms of your controlling the game even though you may say 'You're winning ugly' or whatever," Coach Nick Saban said. "We're still leading 12-3 and in total control of the game with 3:29 left and the ball. That's how fragile a season can be. Make one mistake and you have to go overcome it and I hope that there's a lot of lessons for our team to learn from this and I think our focus needs to be on improving."

First, though, the much-need bye week, which couldn't come at a better time and sets up Alabama for the stretch run. Next up on the schedule is LSU on Nov. 7, which will in all likelihood determine the SEC Western Division champion.

Here are this week's awards:

Play of the game: "Mount" Cody blocking his second field goal of the game as time expired might be the play of the year so far. He also tied the UA single-game record of two blocked field-goal attempts, joining Freddie Prickhard (vs. LSU, 1926), Mike Washington (vs. Mississippi State, 1973) and Derrick Thomas (at Kentucky, 1988).

Player of the game: Cody, but honorable mention goes to senior cornerback Javier Arenas, who despite having bruised ribs made 13 tackles including 3.5 for a loss and a sack, and returned two punts for 33 yards.

Hit of the game: Senior Roy Upchurch had a nice hit on a second-half punt return, but we're giving it to sophomore end Marcell Dareus for his sack right after running back Mark Ingram's fumble.

Statistic of the game: Although winning five straight games against SEC opponents isn't that rare, winning five straight on five consecutive Saturdays is because usually there's an off-week involved. The last time Alabama did it was 1973. On a side note, Florida is in the midst of attempting six straight, which will conclude Nov. 14 at South Carolina (assuming it beats Georgia on Saturday and Vanderbilt next week).

Did you notice? The next time you watch the game-saving block, don't keep your eye on Cody but Arenas. Both he and junior cornerback Kareem Jackson crashed in off the edges and collided headfirst, with Arenas taking the worst of it.

Here are 10 other noteworthy things from Saturday's game:

1. The blocked kicks: Earlier in the game, Cody was lined up on the right side of Tennessee's long-snapper, but was on the left for both blocks. He had senior end Brandon Deaderick on the outside and Dareus on the inside, with both Cody and Dareus driving offensive lineman Cory Sullins (6-foot-1, 270 pounds) back to create penetration. The "max" unit was, from left to right (from the kicker's view), Jackson, sophomore Mark Barron, freshman Nico Johnson, Deaderick, Cody, Dareus, junior Rolando McClain, senior Cory Reamer, senior Justin Woodall, Arenas, with sophomore Julio Jones leaping up in the rear.

2. Cody's helmet: Cody threw off his helmet in celebration after the final block, which normally would have been a penalty. CBS cameras clearly got a shot of his helmet being removed with a clock in the background already at 0:00. Because it was a dead ball and time had expired there was no penalty (Note: Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin has subsequently filed a complaint with the league office claiming that it was still a live ball).

3. Jones in the end zone: Kiffin may want to take back his strong comments about the officiating after watching film of the play Alabama threw a fade into the end zone on third-and-2 at the 4. The defender clearly stopped Jones on his route which is by definition pass interference. The Tide should have had first-and-goal. Also, Reamer was illegally picked on a pass play and junior linebacker Chavis Williams held on the final possession.

4. Penalties: Alabama only had one, but it was costly. On Ingram's 25-yard run out of the wildcat formation, the Tide's longest play of the game, freshman running back Trent Richardson came all the way across field only to be called for a block to the back. The Tide eventually settled for a field goal.

5. The turning point: When Alabama didn't score near the end of the first half much of the life seemed to go out of the offense. After settling for the field goal to go up 9-3, the Tide never converted a third-down opportunity and was outgained 234-69. Tennessee executed 44 offensive plays in the second half and had the ball 20:53 out of 30 minutes.

6. The on-side kick: The "hands" unit featured two rows of five players with Arenas deep. The front row had Reamer and sophomore Brad Smelley spying the kicker in case he did some unusual, with senior Mike McCoy, Jones and Woodall set to field the ball. Behind them were (from midfield over) Preston Dial, Darius Hanks, Jackson, McClain and Michael Williams (normally that may have been injured tight end Colin Peek's role). Because the kicked ball immediately hit the ground the Alabama players could be hit at any time, and Dennis Rogan knocked Jones out of the way when he was set to make the catch. Instead, the ball bounced right to Denarius Moore.

7. The passing game: Here's a statistic that will probably surprise you, junior quarterback Greg McElroy's only incompletion in the second half was the ball he threw away on his final attempt. However, by then the play-calling was more conservative with nothing downfield, so his longest pass was for just 10 yards. Overall, McElroy was 18-of-29 for 120 yards and his longest completion was 19 yards. Five passes were broken up by a defender, although one appeared to be dropped, and he threw away two. He was 4-for-9 on third downs, of which two were converted to first downs, and 0-for-2 in the red zone. For the season, he's 8-for-31 inside the 20.

8. Ingram's fumble: It was a fumble, with three players on the tackle including All-American safety Eric Berry having his helmet on Ingram's chest and Rogan pulling the ball loose. To put it into perspective, it was the first lost fumble on his career in 296 rushing attempts and 26 receptions for 322 touches, 1,633 rushing yards and 243 receiving yards for 1,876 total yards, and 23 touchdowns. What stings even more was that the 5-yard carry also put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. He's only the second sophomore in Alabama history to reach that milestone (Kenneth Darby, 1,062 yards, 2004), and tied Shaun Alexander for the fastest to do so in a season, eight games. When Alexander did it in 1999, it was during his 98-yard performance against Tennessee. Ingram was credited with 99 yards on 18 carries. Incidentally, he failed to reach the end zone for the first time this season.

9. The wildcat: The Tide lined up in the formation nine times, gaining 62 yards (6.8 average). Ingram had seven carries for 56 yards and Richardson had two carries for 6 yards. Outside of the formation, Alabama had 74 rushing yards on 21 carries (3.52 average). Tennessee was determined to stop Ingram and the running game and the more the game progressed the closer the safeties moved up to try and stop any runs out of the wildcat. Also of note, Alabama pounded the ball behind the right side in the first half, but only ran right three times in the second half.

10. Who got thrown at: The obvious answer would appear to be Jackson, who had trouble with a couple of slants, but Tennessee distributed the ball pretty evenly. Jackson had five balls thrown his way (three completions), senior Marquis Johnson had five (three), Woodall had three (one completion and Barron's interception), and Barron two (one). Alabama picked up receivers coming out of the backfield better, but the touchdown, the first yielded since the Kentucky game, was blown coverage. Still, give senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton credit for making some excellent passes to finish 21-of-36 for 265 yards. That's the most completions and passing yards against Alabama this season.

11. A bonus: Senior kicker Leigh Tiffin has made 11 field goals the last three games and continues to lead the SEC in scoring by averaging 10.5 points per game. Second is Ingram at 8.2.


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