TUSCALOOSA _ If you're a die-hard University of Alabama football fan, Saturday was in many ways not surprising.
A rivalry game against Tennessee that was lot closer than it should have been. A tired No. 1-ranked team playing its fifth straight week against a Southeastern Conference opponent. Numerous uncharacteristic mistakes that gave the Volunteers a chance to steal away an epic win for new Coach Lane Kiffin at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
But, oh, how the Crimson Tide won was what made the cigars blaze brightly into the Tuscaloosa night. Not one, but two blocked field goals by massive senior nose tackle Terrence Cody, including the 44-yard attempt with 4 seconds remaining to preserve the dramatic 12-10 victory.
"For the whole team, this was a big win," said Cody, who didn't play Tennessee last year due to a sprained knee. "We knew they were a tough team. They have real good players over there and a good coaching staff. We knew we had to come in strong and it was going to be tough. We had to grind all day."
That's because the Crimson Tide didn't quite play like its top ranking for much of the game, squandering numerous chances throughout but most notably the final 6 minutes 31 seconds, following senior Leigh Tiffin's 49-yard field goal to go up 12-3.
UT went three-and-out, but when trying to kill the clock sophomore running back Mark Ingram lost the first fumble of his career, with the ball stripped and recovered by All-American safety Eric Berry with 3:39 remaining.
"I made a mistake that could have cost us dearly," Ingram said.
That was followed by the pass defense buckling and Tennessee going 43 yard on eight plays to score the only touchdown of the day. To make matters worse, the Volunteers (3-4, 2-2) then perfectly executed the onside kick with Denarius Moore recovering for first-and-10 at the UT 41 with 1:19 left.
Yeah, it was that close, with Kiffin calling it "A difficult loss to deal with," and Nick Saban saying, "It shows you, you talk about how fragile a season is."
"I'm really proud of our players," Saban said. "I didn't want to say this, but I felt like our team was really tired this week psychologically, probably more mentally than really physically. We had a lot of guys beat up, a lot of guys missed practice and a lot of guys struggling to do what we need to do, but there are a lot of positives in this game today."
Still, it was more than just another memorable chapter in the "Third Saturday in October," rivalry, with the teams going toe-to-toe from the start and Alabama (8-0, 5-0, Southeastern Conference) having the upper hand. Early on, sophomore safety Mark Barron's fourth interception of the season caused UT to switch from going downfield to attack with slants, and the Volunteers' running game non-existent.
Alabama really had a chance to pull away late in the second quarter when 11 plays into a drive had second-and-2 at the Tennessee 4 and called two pass plays to sophomore Julio Jones, a fade and a short route that he was clearly stopped by the defender (with no penalty called) .
"Hindsight's always 20-20," Saban said about the calls before entering the locker room with a 9-3 lead at halftime.
Jones easily exceeded his season-high four catches (against both Virginia Tech and Kentucky) in the first half with seven receptions for 54 yards, while Ingram quietly pounded out 99 yards on 18 carries (5.5 average), many out of the wildcat formation.
It set the Tide up for a big second half, only Tennessee turned the tables and played Alabama-type football against it. Thanks to a 13-play drive that went forward 50 yard and the backward 20, the Vols ate up 11 minutes and 47 seconds of the third quarter, and followed that with another 12-play possession.
Cody blocked that attempt from 43 yards.
"He'll be remembered for that, and many other things," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said.
Tennessee ended up outgaining Alabama 341-256, and had an edge in time of possession of 32:18 to 27:42, but still it came down to that one last memorable play … sort of.
"I just dove and me and Kareem (Jackson) collided and I blacked out," said senior cornerback Javier Arenas, who made 13 tackles despite playing with sore ribs. "I was sitting on the ground and I didn't know if they made it or not. All I saw was crimson jumping. Before the snap was probably the worst feeling I've ever had in my whole entire life because of what we did to put ourselves in our position."
Jones had an easier summation of the block.
"Ball game," he said.