Harper, Teamates Keep Level Heads

Before the final, climactic play, before Roman Harper's helmet hit the football in just the right place, Joe Kines gathered his players around him on Bryant-Denny Stadium's sideline.

Tennessee tailback Gerald Riggs, Jr., was being helped off the field with an injured leg, but the Crimson Tide defense was in deep trouble.

The Vols had first-and-goal at the Alabama three-yard line, and with the game tied 3-3 and time ticking away, this was no time to allow a touchdown.

So the University of Alabama defensive coordinator huddled his charges and gave them the best advice he could think of. Dig deep.

"Before we went out there, (Kines said), ‘When you were born, you were born with something deep,'" senior free safety Roman Harper later recalled. "That something, that want-to, that you hardly ever have to pull out, that the average person never has to dig deep for in their lives.

"When you've got your backs against the wall like that, you have to dig down and find something."

You know by now that they did.

Harper's helmet knocked the football out of fullback Cory Anderson's arms at the four-yard line. It bounced out of the end zone for a touchback, allowing Alabama to drive for Jamie Christensen's game-winning field goal with 13 seconds left.

Harper's play – and Alabama's goal-line stand – was the epitome of a defense which is proving it can play at a championship level.

"I'm just so proud of the players," a hoarse Kines said minutes after the game's final gun. "We talked last night about how a couple of guys might have to really dig down. Late in the fourth quarter, we were talking about digging down and we found a way to dig down, get it done, get off the field."

Saturday, they bent – and then bent again.

But they never broke – the sign of a truly great defense.

"That's one of the things we hold to – we bend but we're not going to break, and it showed on that last drive," said junior cornerback Ramzee Robinson. "Roman did a great job making that tackle and forcing the ball out. Just that whole series, we kept fighting and plugging and we knew something was going to go our way."

Mentally weak players might have gotten angry at their offensive teammates, lashing out after every Tennessee sack of Brodie Croyle or every Kenneth Darby carry that went nowhere behind a collapsed offensive line.

But the Tide defense stayed tough. Kept its head up. Just plugged away. And it worked. "We never got down," Robinson said. "Never got discouraged. Just kept working."

Perhaps one of the best signs of Saturday's stunner was that the defense still had a level head after one of its best performances of the season.

Kines talked about how he didn't remember "ever being so proud of a group coming off the field as this one," but a few feet away, Harper talked about his forced fumble in humble tones, and spoke of how his teammates couldn't quite block Tennessee's made field goal, and how they'd correct that flaw in practice this week.

For Alabama to reach its goals – an undefeated season and SEC title, for starters – the defense has plenty of challenges ahead.

The only bad news for offenses is that they know it.

"We still feel like we've got a lot of work to do," Robinson said. "That's our goal, to be the best defensive unit, be a championship unit. For us to do that, we've gotta keep working at practice – correct our mistakes and work from there."

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