This was one of those backyard football moments. One snap … the last play before going in for dinner.
Winner takes all.
No do overs.
That’s where Terrion Arnold found himself at exactly 10:30 Saturday night, up 24-20, three seconds on the clock with Texas A&M at the 2-yard line. The Alabama cornerback sensed the stakes.
And he knew it was coming his way.
Looking to the Aggie sideline, Arnold later said he locked in on A&M coach Jimbo Fisher.
“He’s going ‘Evan, Evan, Evan,’” Arnold recalled.
Of course, Evan Stewart was his assignment in the pass/fail moment at the center of the college football universe. A five-star member of Texas A&M’s much-discussed top-ranked 2022 signing class, Stewart lived up to the billing in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Moments earlier his 23-yard catch helped set up this doomsday scenario as the 24-point underdog found itself on the cusp of a second-annual Crimson Tide stunner.
The gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on Arnold, a redshirt freshman who beat a former five-star recruit for his starting job. He had a crucial role on a night ripe for one final Alabama meltdown, intercepting a second-quarter pass to set up what became a critical field goal.
Still, there was almost a feeling of mounting dread as compounding mistakes, four turnovers and a return of kicking woes had the top-ranked team about to spin off into a ditch.
With an injured Bryce Young a spectator on a night of missed opportunities, Alabama was one play from the final collapse.
Arnold knew it.
“If they throw it my way, I don’t want to be the most hated man at Alabama,” Arnold said after noting moments like these were why he picked Alabama.
Across the field and a few moments earlier, Nick Saban called a timeout when they saw the Texas A&M final snap formation. It looked a lot like something they’d seen before.
“When they scored a touchdown earlier, we were playing them inside out and trapping the flat thinking they would run some kind of pick,” Saban said, “So as soon as they put four wideouts in the game, we thought there would be something similar so we changed the leverage on the guys.”
This was essentially a two-point conversion for the game so Saban said that’s how they were going to approach it. Diagraming the play as part of his weekly TV show, Saban spotlighted Arnold’s coverage. He was alone on the short side of the field with Stewart, the hottest Aggie receiver of the night. The plan was for Arnold to use his leverage to push Stewart outside because he had inside help from linebacker Henry To’o To’o and safety DeMarcco Hellams.
Up front, Will Anderson got to know Haynes King well all night. The outside linebacker had just recorded his eighth quarterback hurry of an exhausting night when the Aggies lined up for that winner-take-all snap.
“What happened on that last play?” Anderson responded when asked about his memory of that fever dream of a game. “I was just locked in, doing my job. Whatever Coach Pete (Golding) called, we tried to execute that so we could win the game.”
On his island, Arnold needed a short memory. He could’ve ended this game a few moments earlier as the final Aggie drive began. Alabama punted it back after a three-and-out, giving the visitors 1:50 on the clock and 71 yards to travel.
The aforementioned 23-yard throw to Stewart was something of a magic trick at Arnold’s expense. With King about to get hit low, he launched one deep.
“I saw Haynes throw it and in my head I’m like ‘Wow, he just threw this,’” Arnold recalled. “I didn’t really time my jump up well and you saw what happened.”
The pass somehow slipped between his outstretched hands and straight into Stewart’s at the Alabama 37. They were officially in business as the worst-case scenario felt increasingly imminent.
On the sideline, Jalen Milroe wasn’t worried. The backup quarterback who stood in for Young played a classic hot and cold night complete with three turnovers and three touchdowns. It was out of his hands when Texas A&M lined up for one final play.
“I was calm,” Milroe said. “It falls back to our training in that situation. We practice rep after rep. I was happy because I knew exactly how it was going to go down.”
Still, this was the same Texas A&M team Alabama overlooked a year ago. Just like 2021, a preseason-No. 6 Aggie team limped into Alabama weekend with two losses. Were they really about to pull the same rope-a-dope?
Saban all week warned of a letdown and here it was, two yards, three seconds and a redshirt cornerback away from the final insult.
Oct. 8 had been circled on every calendar since the mid-May mudslinging so it doesn’t feel overly dramatic to build the moment against a John Williams movie score.
And for all the buildup, the final sequence was over almost as soon as it began.
Arnold forced Stewart outside off the snap. King, if Arnold’s lipreading was correct, followed orders and locked in on Stewart who broke into the end zone only to plant and break back to the front pylon.
The throw never crossed the plane of the goal line.
Alabama survived by the thinnest of margins with the right play call and execution of the plan.
“It was a great route,” Arnold said, “and I was in perfect position and able to make a play.”
Saban, on a night drenched in imperfection, saw it all come together when they stood at the crossroad.
“Terrion made a good play,” he said, “and we had the guys covered on the other side pretty well too.”
The wild on-field celebration ensued as Saban golf clapped his way to the midfield handshake with Fisher.
Alabama 24, Texas A&M 20 was more of a collective exhale than anything.
And while the Crimson Tide lived on the edge at Texas and Arkansas, nothing came as close to failure as Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
But when called home to eat at 10:30 Saturday night, the party certainly beat the alternative for the redshirt freshman who read Jimbo Fisher’s lips.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande gold we Facebook.