Without question, a 65-yard punt return by freshman Javier Arenas ignited Alabama in its win over Florida International. The Crimson Tide had an uncomfortable 10-3 halftime lead over the winless and undermanned Golden Panthers and Bama came back after intermission unsure if quarterback John Parker Wilson would be able to play after he suffered an injured ankle in the second quarter.
Alabama forced a punt on FIU's first possession. Chris Cook's punt from the 30 carried 35 yards. Arenas caught the ball at the Alabama 35. He avoided the initial coverage, cut left in front of the Alabama sideline, and raced downfield with good blocking to his first Alabama touchdown and a 17-3 Crimson Tide lead.
That wasn't the only good in Alabama's kicking game Saturday.
"There are a lot of different ways you can contribute to win a football game," Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula said following the game. "Forress Rayford blocked a punt. Javier Arenas returned a punt for a touchdown. It was good to see some good plays, plays that got us points on the board and got us momentum."
Bama's first touchdown came as a result of Rayford's block. The senior walk-on came up the middle on Alabama's punt rush and got a hand on the punt, causing a punt of only two yards to the FIU 34. From there it took just two plays—a 24-yard pass to Will Oakley and a 10-yard swing pass to Le'Ron McClain—for the touchdown and a 7-3 Alabama lead.
"I blocked one in the A-Day Game in front of about 40,000 people and thought that was great, but to do it today in front of over twice as many people (92,138) was really exciting," Rayford said. "I'm glad I was able to do something to help us win."
David Ungerer, who coaches Alabama's special teams, was feeling good about the day. "The only thing we didn't do well was we had a couple of penalties," Ungerer said. "And one of those penalties (a block in the back call on Ali Sharrief which wiped out a long Arenas return) was questionable. Anytime you have a return there's a possibility of a block in the back because you have so many moving parts. But the one they called was real close."
In addition to the heroics of Arenas and Rayford, placekicker Jamie Christensen had his career long field goal, a 46-yard effort in the second quarter. Also in the placekicking category, walk-on freshman Leigh Tiffin, who had not kicked since his disastrous day against Arkansas in an overtime loss earlier this year, went in for the final two extra point kicks and nailed them. He also had two kickoffs.
Punter P.J. Fitzgerald punted six times for only a 34.8 average, but five of his six boots went inside the FIU 20 and the Golden Panthers had no punt return yardage.
Ungerer said he thought Bama might get a punt block. "I think that was our 12th in three years," he said. "The block was designed for more than one person to have a chance to make it. The protection can break anywhere."
The coach said he also felt that Arenas might have a big return in the game. "We knew we would probably get a lot of punts," he said. "The one problem is their punter was erratic, so we didn't know if we'd get one we could return."