NEW ORLEANS -- Unlike fellow Alabama kicker Cade Foster, Jeremy Shelley didn't abandon his Facebook page after the Crimson Tide's loss to LSU on Nov. 5. Foster had missed three field goals, and Shelley had a kick blocked that night. For this, the kickers earned the scorn of the most passionate fan base in college football.
Shelley swears the criticism wasn't so bad. "I still got some hate mail here and there," Shelley said, "but I also had a lot of people behind me." Alabama center William Vlachos believes Shelley soft-pedaled the abuse. "Alabama fans are freakin' brutal sometimes," Vlachos said.
Shelley did not let his critics faze him. He may have walked off the field Nov. 5 at Bryant-Denny Stadium with his head down, but on Jan. 9, Shelley walked through the Superdome tunnel with arms raised after making five field goals in the Crimson Tide's 21-0 BCS title game win against the Tigers.
"Lowest of lows, highest of highs," Shelley said, marveling at the difference a few kicks can make.
Alabama's offense made Shelley's job easier. The fact that Foster, the kicker Alabama typically uses for kicks longer than 45 yards, didn't attempt a field goal is a testament to the improved production of the offense. In the first meeting, the average length of Alabama's three unblocked misses was 48.7 yards. The average distance of Alabama's seven attempts Monday was 37.1 yards.
Much of the credit for that goes to Alabama's bruising offensive line and to quarterback AJ McCarron, who made good on his promise to play with more emotion after reining himself in on Nov. 5. It was obvious McCarron had unleashed his id when he hit Kevin Norwood for 26 yards down the right sideline on the final play of the first quarter. As Norwood came down with the ball, McCarron wagged a finger in the face of an LSU rusher.
"No. 10 over there? I could not be prouder," Vlachos said. "He's been in tough places. He's been to Penn State. He's been to Florida. He's been to Auburn. He's performed in all those situations. But this was a whole different deal tonight. You want to talk about a guy who had his mind right? He was not worried one bit about anything. ... He was our leader tonight."
While McCarron kept a clear head to get the ball down the field, Shelley kept his mind clear to knock the ball -- held by McCarron -- through the uprights. It helped that Marquis Maze returned a punt 49 yards to set up Alabama's first field-goal attempt, a 23-yard chip shot. "That first one was the most nerve-racking," Shelley said. "Once I hit that first one, I was like, 'All right, let's keep this going.'"
Shelley's second attempt did no go so well. Massive LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers broke through Alabama's line and got a paw on Shelley's 42-yard attempt in the second quarter. That unleashed a torrent of Groundhog Day jokes in the press box and on Twitter as everyone hunkered down for a carbon copy of the first game.
But by the time Shelley knocked in a 41-yarder -- his third field goal of the night -- to close the first half, it was clear LSU's offense could not move the ball against Alabama's defense. Shelley would outscore the Tigers, and he wouldn't have to worry about booting the game-winner as time expired. "I haven't hit a game-winner since I've been here," Shelley said. "Hitting five in a game like this, it's unbelievable. I can't imagine anything being better."
Shelley's teammates likely will tease him for doinking an extra-point attempt off the right upright late in the fourth quarter. After all, in two Alabama-LSU matchups, it was the only point after touchdown attempted. As he pondered the oddity of the no-pressure miss, Alabama holder Carson Tinker could only laugh. "Kickers are like that sometimes," Tinker said.
Football is a funny game. Played, for the most part, by athletic beasts who can eclipse 300 pounds, the sport's most critical moments can hinge on the actions of 165-pound kickers. When they miss, those kickers can get crushed. But when they sail the ball through the uprights, then that 165-pound wisp might hear this from a 6-foot-4, 319-pound defensive end covered in tattoos from his ankle to his throat.
"Shelley, you're my hero," Alabama's Jesse Williams said as he breezed past Shelley in the locker room. "I love you."