By Stewart Mandel
January 08, 2010

PASADENA, Calif. -- Alabama should have won Thursday night's BCS National Championship Game handily. After Texas lost star quarterback Colt McCoy for the game on its fifth offensive play, after Heisman winner Mark Ingram ran his way to 90 yards by halftime, and after 296-pound defensive lineman Marcell Dareus broke out his best NBA spin move on a backbreaking interception return, the Crimson Tide should have waltzed to their 13th national championship.

But that wouldn't have been very 'Bama-esque.

"For some reason we like to keep it close at the end," said Tide linebacker Cory Reamer.

After nearly blowing a 24-6 halftime lead, after watching its offense go belly-up nearly the entire second half, after Texas' seemingly overmatched freshman quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, improbably burned the Tide for two long touchdown passes, Alabama's defense took the field with 3:14 remaining, needing to protect a 24-21 lead.

Two plays later, linebacker Eryk Anders came storming around right end, drilled Gilbert and forced a fumble recovered by Courtney Upshaw at the Texas 3-yard line. Even then, it took three tries for Ingram to plunge his way into the end zone and wrap up an eventual 37-21 Crimson Tide victory.

"When you play a team in a national championship game that knows how to win, they have an ability to come back in the game," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who became the first coach in the modern era to win national titles at two different schools. "I'm very proud that after [Texas] did that, our players were able to finish and make the plays they needed to make to put it away."

It was a bizarre game in which the Tide gained just 263 yards and converted just two third downs, yet started and ended with a flurry. Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy completed just six passes for 58 yards and endured five sacks, yet still had the best day of the three quarterbacks on Thursday.

McCoy completed two pass attempts before sustaining a pinched nerve on a hit from Dareus at the end of a quarterback keeper. His replacement, Gilbert -- a true freshman thrown into his first significant action in the sport's biggest game of the season -- endured a treacherous 15-of-40, four-interception night.

"The game didn't get played the way I expected it to be played. It was kind of awkward," said 'Bama tight end Colin Peek, who finished without a catch. "But at the end of the day, getting one ring is better than getting one catch."

It was an ugly ending to a triumphant, if not always aesthetically pleasing 14-0 season. Tide fans waited 17 years for this moment. A handful of seniors like Reamer waited five. But the real genesis of Alabama's championship began three years earlier when its $40 million savior, Saban, rolled into town.

McElroy, a fourth-year junior, was there for the tumultuous transition from Mike Shula to Saban, when the Tide's roster went through massive upheaval, when the team endured the indignity of losing to Louisiana-Monroe and ending its 2007 season in the Independence Bowl.

"If you had told me two years ago we'd be here today," said McElroy, "I'd have called you a liar."

Then came Saban's breakthrough 2008 season, when the Tide took the nation by storm in winning their first 12 games, seemingly had Florida on the ropes in that year's SEC title game only to lose in the fourth quarter, then lose in the Sugar Bowl to Utah.

"After experiencing those two heartbreaking losses," said McElroy, "we didn't want to have that feeling again."

Perhaps that's how the 2009 Tide came to own the fourth quarter. It started in their very first game against Virginia Tech, which Alabama trailed 17-16 at the start before exploding to 34-24 victory. It took two Terrence Cody field goal blocks to save a 12-10 win over Tennessee. LSU led 12-9 heading into the final period before the Tide pulled away, 24-15, and McElroy led a last-minute touchdown drive to survive Auburn 26-21.

Their coronation could not have fittingly ended any other way.

"You'd much rather have a win with some adversity than a cakewalk," said defensive back Marquis Johnson.

It looked like it would be more the latter after a first half in which Gilbert went just 1-of-10 for minus-four yards in the first half. Ingram and freshman Trent Richardson blazed their way to 103 second-quarter yards. Then Dareus picked off a bobbled shovel pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown just before the half as the Tide built a 24-6 halftime lead.

But then, "We came out in the second half real flat and let them get back in it," said Reamer. "That's not the way Alabama football is supposed to be played."

The Tide managed just three yards of offense in the third quarter, though even after Gilbert finally connected with star receiver Jordan Shipley for a 24-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 24-13, a comeback seemed implausible. Texas even recovered an ensuing onside kick but wound up punting.

But just when ABC's viewers in the East Coast were ready to switch to Letterman, Gilbert hit Shipley again for a 28-yard score, followed by a successful two-point conversion, to make it 24-21 with 4:58 left. The Texas half of the 94,906-person crowd came to life. They became further emboldened when Alabama wound up punting again with 3:14 left.

"There was doubt," McElroy admitted afterward. "When you've never been in this situation, there's always doubt. But one thing I never doubted was our defense."

Two plays later, on one of Saban's artfully disguised blitz schemes, Anders came roaring around the corner, lit into Gilbert and closed Texas' last remaining window. Just for kicks, Javier Arenas picked him off again with 1:48 left and Richardson added one more touchdown.

"The hit Eryk Anders made to cause the fumble at the end was really the difference in the game," said Saban. "You've got to have playmakers making plays to be able to win games, and that certainly was a big play in this game."

Unfortunately for Texas, its best playmaker spent most of the first half in the locker room getting X-rays and treatment, and the second half as a spectator in jersey and shoulder pads. In a cruel ending to an otherwise magnificent career, McCoy barely got a sniff of the national championship game, leaving fans to forever wonder whether the outcome might have been different had he played.

"I know what it would have been like had I played that game," an emotional but remarkably composed McCoy said afterward. "To know that is tough."

Several Tide players expressed sympathy for the Texas star. They also expressed admiration for Gilbert's perseverance in the second half.

For the most part, however, the feeling in their locker room was one of relief.

"Since we lost to Utah last year, coach said, 'What do you want to be remembered as?'" said Ingram. "We had our mind set on going undefeated and winning the national championship."

They got it done. They may have made it a little tougher than necessary, but they didn't know another way.

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