Jones' TD catch sparks Crimson Tide
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For three quarters and change, well before No. 3 Alabama would put away LSU 24-15, clinch the SEC West and remain at the front of the teams behind the BCS's velvet ropes, the Crimson Tide gave the same frustrating performance it had in its previous three games.
The offense still looked like its best play began when place-kicker Leigh Tiffin ran onto the field. Against Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee, field goals had been enough. Against LSU, no. The Tigers held a 15-13 lead, and the Crimson Tide had a lengthening list of offensive misfires.
Tension hung over Bryant-Denny Stadium, tension borne of frustration. Head coach Nick Saban couldn't take it anymore. The Tide trailed by two points because wide receiver Julio Jones failed to come off the field for a goal-line offense. Instead of third-and-goal at the LSU 2, Alabama got penalized 5 yards for having 12 men in the huddle, and Saban erupted. Who knew an AT&T headset could be slammed into the turf and still work?
That mental mistake resulted in Tiffin's kicking a 20-yard field goal, which is how Alabama arrived at that 15-13 deficit. So much at stake, and so much wasn't happening.
Lord knows, the Tide offense had tried to change its ways. Quarterback Greg McElroy, who went from poster boy to whipping boy over the course of October, had come out firing.
He threw on the Tide's first seven plays from scrimmage. McElroy had already thrown for 193 yards, but -- stop me if you've read this before -- Alabama had scored one touchdown in three trips into the red zone.
Jones, frustrated all season by injury and double teams, had two catches for 19 yards. In addition to the penalty, he also had a pass go through his hands at the Alabama 8. On the next play, McElroy got hit in the end zone by LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis and threw the ball as he went down. That brand of intentional grounding earns the defense a safety. Those two points represented the difference in the game.
The clock showed 10:26 remaining when Alabama came onto the field to begin a drive at its own 27. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain called a wide receiver screen, a play that Alabama had not run all season. Left tackle James Carpenter would release to the outside to escort Jones.
"I looked at James," said offensive co-captain Mike Johnson, the left guard, "and said, 'You're up, buddy.'"
A crowd of 92,012 that began the game in a roar hadn't been loud for a while. That was about to change. So was this game, and the Crimson Tide's season.
McElroy flipped the ball out to Jones, who shook off defensive back Brandon Taylor. Carpenter, rumbling toward the sideline in front of Jones, blocked one defender, spun around and took out another. Jones cleared the line of scrimmage, sprinting past the Alabama bench all by himself.
The next guy to lay a hand on him would be teammate Darius Hanks, high-fiving him in the end zone.
"I thought he stepped out," McElroy said. "I didn't react until pretty late. I think the next thing that went through my mind when I saw him high-stepping down the sideline was, 'Who am I going to celebrate with?'"
"They wanted me to make a play," Jones said, "and I did."
This was no mere touchdown. It was 73 yards of catharsis, 13 seconds of massage that unleashed every hunched shoulder in the stadium. Alabama made a two-point conversion to lead 21-15 with 10:24 to play.
No one could have felt better than McElroy. When he missed a wide-open Jones in the end zone in the second quarter, McElroy sank to his knees and put his hands on his helmet. His body language screamed, "What did I just do?" The drive ended in, you guessed it, a 28-yard field goal.
But after the game, having completed 19 of 34 passes for 276 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, McElroy felt better. It wasn't relief. He's too much of a competitor. McElroy felt satisfaction for himself and for Jones.
"He's had a lot of pressure on him, too," McElroy said. "I've had to deal with a lot of animosity, a lot of hatred from a lot of different people, some of it undeserved I feel like, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. He's dealt with the same thing. The fact that he was able to make a play really made me excited for him and the team."
Someone asked if McElroy felt as if he had come through the other side. Before Saturday, he hadn't completed a pass longer than 27 yards in his last four games. He hadn't thrown a touchdown pass in his last three. The fans touting him for the Heisman in September had turned on him.
"Every game is its own animal," McElroy said. "You can never say you won't face adversity again, because you will. This is the SEC and you play great teams week in and week out. Is it frustrating to me that people did lose faith in me? Yeah. It really takes a toll.
"But I never lost faith in myself, I never lost faith in my teammates, and I never lost faith in what we were able to do offensively. It really made me feel good to go out and silence everybody tonight and obviously get a big victory."
Through three quarters and change, the Alabama offense looked as if it hadn't changed. In the course of one play, maybe it has. With this victory, Alabama guaranteed itself a date with No. 1 Florida in the SEC championship game. And maybe, just maybe, Alabama has an offense that can take it one game farther.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.
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