Pasadena, Calif. The sure thing was looking shaky for Alabama.
Hanging onto a precarious three-point lead and with momentum on the other side, linebacker Eryk Anders was determined not to let the championship slip away.
Anders forced a fumble on his blindside sack of Texas backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert with 3:02 left Thursday night to help the top-ranked Crimson Tide hold on for a 37-21 victory in the BCS title game — a victory that figured to be much easier when Alabama knocked out Colt McCoy early in the first quarter.
“I would have given anything to be out there because it would have been different,” McCoy said.
With McCoy on the sideline nursing a shoulder injury, the Tide (14-0) rolled to a 24-6 lead at halftime, the final touchdown coming when lineman Marcell Dareus picked off a shovel pass and returned it 28 yards for the score late in the second quarter.
“I was thinking about grabbing the guy with the ball, but then I said, ‘Let me just grab this football.’ I wasn’t even thinking about the highlight. I was so excited. My legs were weak, my muscles were crazy, and I made it,” Dareus said.
The second half figured to be a laugher with Gilbert in the game — a freshman who was Texas’ “quarterback of the future” but had thrown only 26 college passes.
The kid almost did it, though.
He threw two touchdown passes to All-American Jordan Shipley to trim the deficit to 24-21 with 6:15 left, and after an Alabama punt, he had the ball at the seven-yard line, 93 yards away from one of the most improbable comeback stories in the history of the game.
But after an Alabama holding penalty moved the ball to the 17, Gilbert dropped back to pass and got rocked by Anders, a senior who plays in the shadow of All-Americans Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain. The ball went flying, and Courtney Upshaw recovered.
Three plays later, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram surged into the end zone from the 1 for the 10-point lead. A few minutes later, after Gilbert’s third interception of the night, Trent Richardson scored his second touchdown to make it 37-21.
Then the party began. Glory came back to one of the country’s most storied programs, the football factory that Bear Bryant built, courtesy of Nick Saban, who resurrected this team in the short span of three seasons.
“We back,” Ingram said.
Back for the first time since 1992, when Bryant’s protege, Gene Stallings, led the Crimson Tide to its last national title. This one gives Alabama eight since the polls began in the 1930s. Its seventh Associated Press championship should be a shoo-in when the votes are tabulated.
Ingram finished with 116 yards and two touchdowns and Richardson had 109 yards and two scores.
Anders will go down with them in Crimson Tide lore, as will Dareus, who before his touchdown knocked McCoy — the winningest quarterback in college football history — down and out with an injury to his throwing shoulder on Texas’ fifth offensive play.
“I just heard a thump when I hit him,” Dareus said. “I did lay it down pretty hard. I didn’t try to, but it felt great.”
Dareus finished with one tackle, one interception and one touchdown, but all were game-changers.
Seeking its second national title in five years, Texas (13-1) got to the game on the back of its All-American quarterback, who often looked like a one-man show in leading the Longhorns to 13 straight wins.
After the injury, McCoy was begging to go back in to finish his last college game. His dad, interviewed on TV, said the injury wasn’t that bad.
But Texas coaches decided to err on the side of caution, and McCoy spent the second half wearing a headset on the sideline, trying to encourage his teammates.
The Longhorns defense, ranked third in the country in yards allowed, kept things close until Gilbert got his feet underneath him.
And boy did he.
He led the Longhorns on a five-play, 59-yard drive to make it 24-13, then 60 yards for the second score, and suddenly, the Tide was falling apart, not rolling. The 2-point conversion made it 24-21.