Those “Oh, no! Way to go!” events happen in sports. A big man steps out beyond the three-point line and shoots...and it goes in. A runner tries to stretch a base and makes it. And in football, a player gets the ball deep in his own end zone and takes it out for a big gain
Alabama had one of those ultimate “Oh, no! Way to go!” moments in last week’s 49-30 win over Arkansas. The Tide was leading by 42-24 and the Razorbacks were driving when Crimson Tide nickel back Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted deep in the end zone. With no hesitation, Fitzpatrick began the return, urged on by fellow defensive back Eddie Jackson who was waving and screaming, “Come on!”
Alabama Coach Nick Saban was asked about the play in Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference Teleconference. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, no!’ Saban said. “And then after he got to about the 10-yard line I said, ‘He may go all the way.’ So it worked out.”
Worked out is right. Minkah’s third interception of the game against Arkansas resulted in him returning the ball an official 100 yards (actually closer to 109) for a touchdown.
Fitzpatrick said, “As soon as I caught the ball, Eddie had tapped my arm. He was like, ‘Come on,’ and he pointed to the left side of the field – and it was wide open. So I just had to take a chance. I know Coach Saban probably wasn’t happy at first, but I think he was happy with the end result.”
Fitzpatrick said he knew he was deep in the end zone when he made the interception. “As soon as I turned around I saw the back line right there, so I knew I was pretty deep.”
It may have helped that Jackson was right there to insist on the runback. Fitzpatrick said, “He always likes to score. Even at practice, everytime we get a pick he runs down the field trying to score. He loves the end zone just as much as I do. As soon as he tapped me I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re taking it back.’”
In addition to closing out the Bama scoring in a big road win, Fitzpatrick received plenty of recognition for his day. He was the Thorpe Award and Walter Camp Award defensive player of the week, and the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
“It was a great honor,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was a great team effort. Defensive line helped out a whole lot, linebackers help me out a whole lot. But we’re looking forward to Tennessee this week.”
Alabama has another difficult road game this week when the Crimson Tide, ranked first in the nation with a 6-0 record, goes to Tennessee to take on the ninth-ranked Vols (5-1 after a double overtime loss on the road against undefeated Texas A&M last week). Kickoff will be at 3:30 p.m. EDT (2:30 central) with CBS televising the game.
Fitzpatrick recognizes this week’s challenge against a Tennessee team that has had a number of late comeback wins and the Vols’ fine quarterback Joshua Dobbs. He said, “That’s a big part of this week – just playing all four quarters, keeping our foot on the pedal. Joshua Dobbs is a great quarterback. He has great receivers and running backs around him. So we’re going to have to execute all four quarters.”
Fitzpatrick isn’t exactly a flash in the pan. His TD runback was his third, which ties an Alabama record, and he’s only a sophomore. Last year he was Freshman All-America as he had two interceptions for touchdowns in a win at Texas A&M (also a Bama record), was in on 45 tackles, had two sacks and a quarterback pressure, broke up 11 passes, and at Georgia blocked a punt and scored a touchdown. Thus far this season he has been in on 27 tackles, including two sacks, has broken up 5 passes, and caused a fumble.
Saban said that Fitzpatrick “is more confident now. He’s got a better understanding of what he’s doing. I think guys that approach the game the way he does and prepare well, they anticipate better and can play faster. I think that helps their performance, and I think it also helps them improve more rapidly because their knowledge and experience sort of escalates right along with their attention to detail.”
Fitzpatrick said, “I would say just paying attention to the smaller details and learning what the offense can do. And also just physically, I put on some weight, I got faster. I’ve been working on my man technique, press-man corner, and just my versatility.”
Following the game, Saban said the secondary made big plays, but also gave up big plays. That wasn’t lost on Fitzpatrick, who said, “I gave up some plays on third down.”
He said the lapses against Arkansas on many third down plays was the result of poor execution. “We were out there a whole lot on Saturday,” he said. “I was kind of getting frustrated. The defensive line was getting to the quarterback. They were doing their job. We’ve just got to execute and play better.”
Saban emphasizes “Play with your eyes,” which Fitzpatrick said is key to success in the secondary. It begins with film study, continues with pre-snap observations, and is complete with eye control during the play.
This week his eyes are on Tennessee. “Coach Cochran (strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran) says, ‘People will ask you what’s your record against Tennessee and how many national championships do you have?’ You want to be able to say I’m 4-0 against them, 3-0 against them, whatever it is. It’s just a priority.”