At the beginning of the fourth quarter Bama was up by ten points. But a towering Razorback kick had pinned the Tide on its own goal line. And after failing to make a first down, Alabama was forced to punt. A very short kick--followed by an excellent Razorback return--set Arkansas up first and ten at the Alabama 20.
Within easy scoring distance and with the home crowd roaring their encouragement, momentum was clearly in the Razorback's favor.
But then Pope made his move.
"We had a defense on where I had to lock on to the running back," Pope said in explaining what happened. "The Arkansas quarterback scrambled out of the pocket. As he was fixing to get sacked, I saw him release the ball. I sprinted to the ball, and jumped in front of the man as he was falling down."
Trying to make something happen for his team, Matt Jones (the Razorback quarterback) threw the ball under heavy pressure.
And Pope made him pay.
"It was a good job by Nautyn (McKay-Loescher) to strike the quarterback," Pope continued. "As he was pulling Jones down, the quarterback just threw the ball and I happened to be right there. It was a good play."
Good play, indeed.
A review of the film shows that Pope had the pass covered the whole way. He timed his move perfectly, breaking on the ball to step in front and make the interception. "It was a pretty good break," Pope acknowledged. "The running back was my man. Jones was throwing to the running back, so I just jumped in front."
Pope's timing was so perfect that at first he appeared to have smooth sailing toward the end zone. But 61 yards later the middle linebacker ran out of gas. "I was trying to run for a touchdown," he said, recalling the moment. "But I ran out of energy."
A touchdown would have been nice. But Pope's interception and run gave Alabama the ball at the Arkansas 20-yard line, turning momentum back in the Tide's favor and dooming the Razorback hopes.
Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione commented. "If you're looking for big plays in the second half, that was certainly one of them. Arkansas had gotten excellent field position. And then Derrick makes his interception and takes that away."
A native of Galveston, Texas, Pope played junior college ball at Garden City Community College in Kansas. So many of his friends and family had tripped to Fayetteville to watch him play. "It was a lot of fun," Pope related. "I had a lot of family there. I had friends that played for Arkansas.
"For me to make that play was a great feeling."
Pope's interception marks the second key pick by a Tide middle linebacker this year. And the big backers in the middle aren't normally noted for coverage skills--at least they're not supposed to be. "That's what they say," Pope acknowledged laughing, "but (Linebackers) Coach Torbush does a great job of teaching us pass defense. Running is one of my strengths. We work on one-on-one drills every day in practice.
"That's one of Coach Torbush's big things. He loves for his linebackers to cover."
Though technically Pope is running second string behind Freddie Roach, his position coach considers him a starter. "Before Derrick even got here I told the other guys that what he wants to do is beat somebody out," Torbush said. "Derrick has made them all better, because everybody has fought to keep their starting job."
A junior in terms of eligibility, Pope has still had to learn and adjust to an entirely new defensive scheme. "I'm settling into the defense pretty well," he said. "I'm learning the plays. I feel comfortable calling the defensive signals--that's one thing the ‘Mike' linebacker does. It's just a matter of practice, putting it all together."
After arriving this past summer, Pope quickly earned the respect of his teammates. But he found out just as quickly from the team leaders that expectations were very high. "It's pretty tough, too," he explained, "because you've got a lot of veterans on the team like Jarret Johnson, Kenny King and Kindal Moorehead. You have to learn the defense, because they expect you to know it."
A tad on the short side for the position of middle linebacker, Pope still packs a powerful punch. "Physically I'm working on hitting the lineman and getting off blocks," he related. "They're much bigger than me. I'm only 5-11 or 6-0, while most linemen are 6-4 or 6-5. I try to do my best and use leverage against them."
What he may lack in height, Pope more than makes up for in straight-ahead speed. "We're a pretty fast group," he said. "I don't think there is a faster group of linebackers in the country. Brooks Daniels (Bama's starting Rover) is the fastest linebacker I've played with. I just try to compete with him every day in practice."
Pope and his coaches expect plenty of similar plays in the future, but it was fitting that his first big interception came on national television against the Arkansas Razorbacks. "Arkansas wanted me pretty bad during recruiting," Pope related.
"But I had to roll with the Tide."