With more than 11 minutes to go in the game, Southern Miss had driven into Alabama territory, reversing field position and seeming to gain some offensive momentum. But a holding penalty stalled that drive. And when the Golden Eagle punter couldn't handle the snap, Bama's Chris James was all over him.
James recalled the action. "On the first play it was a bad snap. I was able to get to the punter coming around the corner. He was a heavy guy, so I tried to come over the top to make the tackle."
With the help of Lance Taylor, James rode the USM punter to the ground, giving Bama the ball and momentum at their opponent's 23 yardline. Two runs and an incomplete pass later, the Tide attempted and missed a field goal. But Bama's defense once again snuffed out the Golden Eagle drive, setting up the next punt attempt.
"On the second play, it was a high snap," James related. "I was able to get around the wing and get a hand in there. I kind of dove and got one hand in. It happened so fast... I was coming from an angle and was just able to reach."
Replays show a horizontal James, reaching out at the last split-second to take the football off the punter's foot.
"I was looking at the punter the whole time," James said. "I saw him make his drop and just stuck my hand in there. At the start of the play, when I saw the high snap I thought ‘Oh yeah, I've got a chance to get it.'"
Greg McLain picked up the blocked punt, returning it to the one yardline. The next play Shaud Williams ran for the touchdown, pushing the score to 17-3, Alabama, and essentially putting the game out of reach.
"Chris had two big plays," Tide Head Coach Mike Shula said afterwards. "At first their punter dropped the ball, and Chris was right there to make the tackle. Then he came up on the very next chance with the block.
"I don't think I've ever seen a punt blocked that way. He came from the outside and just kind of ducked in there and took the ball right off the punter's foot."
According to Special Teams Coach Dave Ungerer, James and his teammates set up the play on the sideline. "That was great communication by our players," Ungerer explained. "A lot of times what happens in the kicking game is you counter a counter. We had a block last game against Georgia, and Southern Miss was countering that look. The players told me ‘Hey coach, they're blocking me this way.' Then I countered with another block that allowed us to get Chris free.
"A lot of that credit goes to the kids understanding what we're trying to get done and communicating properly, so we can counter."
When asked about the play, James deflected credit back to his coach. "It all starts with Coach Ungerer," James said. "He takes pride in special teams, and it rubs off on everybody. He's very enthusiastic. We all take pride in it. One play can change the outcome of the game."
Signed as a defensive back, James has played sparingly in the secondary during his career. But he's become one of Bama's best players on special teams.
"It doesn't matter to me," James said of his kicking game playing time. "I enjoy it. It's fun playing on special teams. Anything to help the team out I'm more than willing to accept."
James says that he plays on every Alabama special teams unit, with the exception of the "hands team" in on-side kick situations. In Bama's last two games, James has not played a down on defense. But he got in on 22 and 17 special teams plays versus Georgia and Southern Miss respectively.
"Chris has done some really good things for us this year on special teams," Shula said. "I remember in the very first game he set up Shaud Williams' punt return for a touchdown (against South Florida) after Chris just barely missed blocking the punt. Chris circled back around and made a key block on that touchdown run.
"He's a guy that has performed well on special teams, week-in and week-out."
"If I play well on special teams, then maybe the coaches will have more confidence on me for defense," James said. "I take that as motivation. I think playing special teams can only help me get better on defense."
An option quarterback in high school, James described his prep career. "In high school I never came off the field. I was in on everything."
A fourth-year junior, James arrived on campus a relative thin, even skinny, 172-pounder. Now he's up to a rock-solid 198, but he hasn't lost his speed. When he's not blocking punts for Alabama, James is racing down the field to cover kicks.
"I've always been able to run," James said. "I used to run track in high school. That helped build my speed up. So special teams plays to my strength."
Like most new players, it took James awhile to learn to appreciate the key role played by the kicking game in a contest's outcome. But now he prizes his role. "You learn over time," James said. "It grew on me. I've been on special teams since my freshman year. You understand things better."
Both Shula and Ungerer talk all the time about the importance of special teams. In a close game, more often than not the kicking game will prove the difference.
"The main thing Saturday was the effort," Shula said of Bama's special teams. "The players gave great effort and wanted to make the play. That's where the big plays come. We've played some games now, and guys understand more about their role and how they could be the guy on the punt block or make the big block on the return."