Nick Saban’s rise to the top of the college football world has been built one thunderous tackle at a time. The wins have kept coming because the hits have kept coming, whether Saban was coaching in Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa.
His defenses don’t just shut offenses down. They beat offenses up.
In a bizarrely entertaining Citi BCS National Championship Game on Thursday night, the dead-serious Saban became the first coach to win titles at two different schools, thanks to two game-turning, molar-rattling tackles that will echo in Alabama lore for years to come.
One came just four minutes into the game. The other came with just three minutes left. In between was a whole lot of craziness — coaching gaffes and comebacks and plot twists galore. But the Crimson Tide’s two punishing shots on Texas quarterbacks were the trademark Saban plays that bookended their 37-21 victory over the Longhorns at the Rose Bowl.
The first was end Marcell Dareus’ knockout blow to senior QB Colt McCoy just five plays into Texas’ first offensive possession. The legally lethal hit on McCoy’s throwing shoulder ended his night, his season and his superb college career. The diagnosis was a pinched nerve. The result was a clinched title.
“It certainly changed the game,” Saban said
The other tackle was linebacker Eryk Anders’ unimpeded blind-side blitz that leveled gritty freshman QB Garrett Gilbert, resulting in a fumble the Crimson Tide recovered at the Texas 3-yard line. Prior to that play, Gilbert was authoring an amazing Hollywood story, picking his jaw up off the Rose Bowl grass after a gruesome first half and dragging the Longhorns back from down 24-6 to 24-21. But the Tide defense would not tolerate what would have been an epic collapse; it forced the turnover and Bama scored the touchdown that put the game away.
“The difference in the game,” Saban said.
This is SabanBall. Hit like your scholarship check depends on it. Take the ball away (five times in this game). Win.
This also fits the pattern of recent Southeastern Conference dominance in the BCS championship game, where the league now has won an unprecedented four straight national titles. SEC defenses have been vicious in victory, mauling Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith three years ago, then Buckeyes QB Todd Boeckman, then Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford into poor performances. Now the league can tack McCoy’s skin to the wall, as well.
It was fitting that Rolando McClain walked off the Rose Bowl field with the BCS championship totem tucked under his arm — the crystal football. McClain is a linebacker. Even on a team that features the first Heisman Trophy winner in school history, a defensive guy was the right choice to bring the hardware home.
In the final analysis, this title game embodied the entire season. It was supposed to be all about offense, with the return of three Heisman-finalist quarterbacks from 2008, but it was dominated by defense. It began with a season-altering shoulder injury and it ended with one.
If anyone knows how Colt McCoy feels, it’s his good friend Bradford of rival Oklahoma — his season was trashed in the first half of the first game when he injured his right arm against BYU. Texas’ path to the BCS title game was smoothed in part by Bradford’s injury — but then it hit a dead end when McCoy went down here.
“I saw the hit,” said Alabama running back (and Heisman winner) Mark Ingram. “I was like, ‘Oooh, that kind of hurt.’ Then somebody told me he was running off holding his shoulder.”
McCoy never ran back on. It was a miserably sad way to end a great college run — and for a long time thereafter it appeared the injury would cheat football fans everywhere out of a potentially great game.
“As much as I enjoy winning, you always hate to see a great competitor who’s had a great career not be able to participate in a game that he’s probably worked his entire career to be a part of,” Saban said.
McCoy’s replacement, Gilbert, hadn’t played a high-pressure snap all season. He’s little more than a year removed from winning a Texas high school state title. Then they’re patting him on the rear and sending him in to beat Alabama for a national title.
A nervous breakdown would have been a perfectly understandable response.
“Here’s a guy standing there on the sidelines as cold as he can be, and all of a sudden in the national championship game it’s like, ‘OK, son, you’ve got it,'” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “I can’t even imagine.”
The initial results were unimaginably bad. Gilbert was 1-for-10 for minus-4 yards. He had two interceptions, one of them a pick-six, after a calamitous end-of-half coaching decision by Brown.
Instead of running out the clock down 17-6 and trying to regroup, Brown called a timeout with 15 seconds left and the ball at the Texas 37. Then, hoping to get in range for a bomb to the end zone or a long field goal, the Horns cooked up a shovel pass that shoveled dirt on their title hopes.
Garrett’s pass bounced off the hands of D.J. Monroe and into the hands of Dareus, who suddenly turned into a 296-pound Reggie Bush. Dareus ran. He spun away from a tackle like an elephantine ballerina. Then he ran some more, until he was in the end zone for a touchdown that seemed to end the game.
“My first reaction was grab the ball, and then after that I blanked out,” Dareus said with a dimpled smile. “All I was thinking about is Mark Ingram and Javier Arenas and just doing moves I didn’t think I could do. I can’t believe I pulled off that spin.”
Nobody else could believe Texas took that gamble.
“We called a little shovel pass that I had never seen intercepted before, and I certainly hadn’t seen it intercepted for a touchdown,” Brown said.
It was the most costly coaching decision of the night, but not the worst. That honor belongs to Saban, who raised eyebrows by taking the ball to start the game instead of deferring — then ordered up a you-cannot-be-serious fake punt on fourth-and-23 from the Alabama 20.
But five plays later, the storyline was altered by the injury to McCoy, and the Horns were held to a field goal that set the tone for subsequent offensive failures. Without the winningest quarterback in college football history, surely Texas was toast. But it refused to submit.
Gilbert regrouped and led a rally for 15 unanswered Longhorns points. And when the defense held overly conservative Alabama again and got the ball back with 3 minutes, 14 seconds left, you could feel a miracle percolating.
“I actually thought when we got the ball back that he was going to take us down and win,” said Brown, whose national title win four years ago in this same stadium was fueled by a gutsy winning drive in the final minutes.
But there would be no repeat of that scenario, not after Anders separated Gilbert from the ball. When it comes to BCS title games, Nick Saban’s merciless defenses don’t allow miracles on their watch.