Mirroring the team as a whole, Daniels and the Alabama defense had a decidedly up and down season--playing well at times and poorly at others. But following an abysmal performance against LSU, the unit decided enough was enough.
Daniels explained; "We had a defensive meeting and the coaches just told us ‘Hold the rope. Things are going to get better.' We're sitting at 3-5 at the time, and we didn't know which way we were going. We had to make a decision among ourselves to go after it. And we did."
In losses to Tennessee and LSU, the Tide had yielded 35 points. And the Bengal Tigers had set all-time records for yardage gained against an Alabama defense. But for its final four games the Bama D gave up an average of only 13 points per contest.
"We made the decision individually to play like champions," Daniels said. "From that point on we played better. And we ended up in a bowl."
Of course that bowl game was no easy thing.
For most of the Independence Bowl, Iowa State moved the ball up and down the field, managing 456 yards of total offense. "The Cyclones had a great game plan for us," Daniels acknowledged. "They were mixing it up, and throwing things at us that we didn't expect."
In the weeks leading up to the game, the Iowa State coaches had obviously put their time to good use. And much of what Alabama tried on defense seemed to be expected. Daniels explained; "Every time we were in a blitz they would just dump it off to a back out of the backfield. So we had to adjust our game plan for them."
Led by their sensational junior quarterback, the Cyclones kept Alabama off balance for most of the evening. "Seneca Wallace made plays everywhere," Daniels said. "Throwing the ball and running. He's a great player."
Daniels and his running mates were keying on Wallace for most of the night, but the Cyclone star read the Bama D, accounting for almost 300 yards of offense. "We had some special things for him," Daniels said. "But Seneca Wallace being the great athlete he was, he was just making plays."
Over and over Wallace used his running ability to buy time in the pocket before delivering the ball to the open man down field. "Plus, we had a bad tackling game," Daniels continued. "We missed a lot of tackles. We just had a bad defensive game, until they got to the red zone."
With nine and a half stops to his credit, free safety Reggie Myles led Alabama in tackling versus the Cyclones. Middle linebacker Saleem Rasheed contributed six and a half, while Daniels chipped in five and a half of his own.
Of course yards are one thing, but games are won or lost according to points scored. And all season Alabama has been better close to its own goal, rather than out around midfield. For the year the Tide ranked 48th in the nation, according to yards allowed. Decent, but hardly startling stats--especially when compared to Alabama expectations.
But in the category of scoring defense, the Tide was a more impressive 24th overall.
"That's the biggest point," Daniels said. "And that's just like we played all year. The (opposing team) will drive and move the ball. But once they get close to the red zone we'll buckle down."
And what's the explanation for Bama's better play down close? "It's not any fancy plays," Daniels replied. "It's just smash-mouth football when they get down close to our 20 (yard line)."
"In the huddle in the fourth quarter against Iowa State, we said to each other, ‘Hey, we've got to play Alabama football,'" Daniels continued. "And we did that."
As he's done often this season, during a fourth-quarter timeout Tide Defensive Coordinator Carl Torbush held an on-the-field team meeting with his unit. "Coach (Torbush) just told us to keep our heads up," Daniels related. "He reminded us that everything was on the line.
‘All the summer workouts and everything we've done, it's all on the line here. We've won three games, and here is our chance to win four. Just make the season end up right with a win.'"
After an impressive career coaching defensive football, Torbush is known as one of the better coordinators in the country. But this was his first season working at Alabama. And Daniels said it takes some time for players to adjust.
"You have to get used to new coaches," Daniels explained. "I'd say it probably took us by the second or third game to really get used to Coach Torbush and how he does things. It took us awhile to get everything together on the defensive side.
"It started coming together more after the fourth game (South Carolina), and we started making more plays. Then after a tough year we made it to the Independence Bowl, and we won it."
Though only a sophomore, Daniels put his name in the record book this season. He and Rasheed are only the second duo in Alabama's long history to record 100 or more tackles in the same season. Both Daniels and Rasheed started every game, with Rasheed totaling 115 tackles and Daniels 102. Both numbers are career highs. The only other duo in school history to record 100 tackles in the same season were All-Americans Marty Lyons (defensive tackle) and Barry Kraus (linebacker) in 1978. Lyons paced the "Redwood Forest" defense with 119 stops, while Kraus was second with 112.
There is still speculation that a player (or two) from this year's Tide team may declare early for the NFL draft. But Alabama will lose only two seniors (Reggie Myles and Aries Monroe) off the unit that started versus Iowa State.
"I think as a unit next year we'll be even better," Daniels said. "And the coaches will be in their second year. We'll know them and the defenses better. We're going to know the defenses inside and out, and that's a really good thing."