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January 8, 2010

Champions!

PASADENA, Calif. _ This was the end.

This was the end of 17 years University of Alabama football fans wondered if the rollercoaster would ever stop. The end of a lot of mediocrity, two years removed from playing in back-to-back Independence Bowls. The end of doubt whether one of the most storied programs in history would ever be able to reclaim its proud status.

What a fitting setting for it to happen, the Rose Bowl, even though the Crimson Tide's 13th national championship did end up being rather anti-climactic on some levels Thursday night.

"We back," said sophomore Mark Ingram, with the 37-21 victory over Texas leaving no doubt.

With four turnovers created by the defense, which also knocked Longhorns senior quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game with a shoulder injury, and both Ingram and freshman running back Trent Richardson tallying more than 100 rushing yards, the Tide celebrated in the same place where it won its first title 84 years ago in similar fashion against Washington.

But never before had an Alabama or Southeastern Conference team gone 14-0 to win the championship, much less beat the last three national champions along the way and land the Heisman Trophy.

"I'll tell you what I told the team, that I've never been prouder of a group of guys for their resiliency, their buy-in, their hard work, the blood, sweat and tears that they put worth to accomplish what they accomplished this season," said Nick Saban, who became the first coach in modern college football history to win national titles at two different schools. "I think most of us don't realize how difficult it is, the togetherness that it takes, the discipline and execution that it takes, and certainly the hard work that these guys did."

For that, they were handed the crystal football. They'll also be measured for large rings and one person might soon get a statue alongside the Alabama's other championship coaches despite the fight he's expected to put up.

"I'll talk to him," athletics director Mal Moore said with a wide grin.

Alabama also did so while sticking to what it does best, play physically, only the Tide didn't come out that way and essentially handed the Longhorns six points before the fireworks smoke from the pregame festivities cleared. After winning the coin toss and taking the ball, Alabama inexplicably tried to execute a fake punt at its own 20, with senior P.J. Fitzgerald's toss intercepted by Blake Gideon.

The subsequent goal-line stand helped set the defensive tone for the Tide, but after making a short field goal Texas pooch-kicked for the second time in freshman Michael Williams' direction, only there was no one there to field it. The recovery led to another field goal.

But even though Texas led 6-0 after the first quarter what appeared to be the death blow had already been struck. It came on the Longhorns' fifth offensive snap, when McCoy was hit by sophomore end Marcell Dareus and sustained a pinched nerve.

"I'm not in pain, but my arm's dead," McCoy said. "Feels like I slept on my arm."

Without the NCAA's all-time winningest quarterback, who had never missed a game with an injury, the Longhorns had to turn to true freshman Garrett Gilbert, who had seen spot duty in nine games but attempted just 26 passes.

That's when the pounding began. Ingram and Richardson gashed and grinded the nation's No. 1 defense against the run, with Alabama more than doubling in the first half what Texas allowed per game (62.2 yards). Ingram got it going with carries of 8, 9 and 9 yards to set up his first touchdown, a 2-yard plunge when ran into open space behind part-time fullback Terrence Cody.

Richardson didn't mess around with any of that, bursting through the left side on a counter and outraced everyone in white 49 yards to the end zone midway through the second quarter.

Yet Alabama wasn't done. A Leigh Tiffin 26-yard field goal later, Texas surprisingly took a time out with 15 second remaining so Gilbert could attempt a shovel pass.

"That chance was about as safe as we got," Texas coach Mack Brown said.

Instead, the ball bobbled, Dareus snared it and ran over the quarterback en route to the end zone, getting there for the 28-yard score with just three seconds on the clock.

"My first reaction was grab the ball, and then after that I blanked out," Dareus said. "All I was thinking about is Mark Ingram and Javier (Arenas) and just doing moves I didn't think I could do."

Having scored 24 unanswered points, the Tide appeared to have stuck a fork in the Longhorns … or had it?

"At halftime with that lead, I think we got a little too high," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. "We came out the second half real flat."

With Alabama playing conservatively, Texas kept attacking and Gilbert finally started getting into a rhythm, particularly with All-American wide receiver Jordan Shipley. A 28-yard touchdown closed the gap and their 44-yard strike suddenly made it a three-point game in the fourth quarter. The Longhorns even found themselves with first down at their own 7 with 3:14 remaining.

"There were times he was a little bit shaky, but for the most part to step in, in a situation like that, he did awesome," Arenas said about Gilbert, who as a high-profile recruit was named both the Gatorade and Parade national player of the year in 2008.

Alabama finally got to him while faking a blitz on the other side, when Texas squeezed its protection and essentially leaving senior Eryk Anders unblocked. When he caught Gilbert from the blindside the ball flew loose, with sophomore linebacker Courtney Upshaw recovering at the Texas 3.

"The hit Eryk Anders made to cause the fumble at the end of the game was really the difference in the game," Saban said.

Ingram punched in another touchdown and following a last-minute Arenas interception, his second, Richardson did likewise. While the passing game mustered only 58 yards, with sophomore receiver Julio Jones making only one catch and senior tight end Colin Peek shut out, Ingram had 116 touchdowns on 22 carries despite cramping and playing with a foot injury, and Richardson accumulated 109 yards on 19 carries.

Texas outgained Alabama 276-263 yards, was more successful on third downs and notched five sacks against a unit that had yielded only 15 all season.

None of that mattered. Ingram was named the game's offensive MVP and Dareus took home the defensive award despite having just the one tackle. They along with senior guard Mike Johnson kissed and cradled the crystal football when it was handed to them on the victory platform.

The era of an era was over, and possibly a new one begun.

"I feel like I've played an entire career, it's been one heck of a season," McElroy said. "This team is just so special. I've been a part of a lot of great things. I've been a lot of football locker rooms, a lot of hockey locker rooms and things like that, but this team has the heart.

"That's what it is, willingness to go the extra mile."


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