It was one of those backyard football moments. A wink… the last piece before going to dinner.
The winner takes it all.
That’s where Terrion Arnold found himself at exactly 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, up 24-20, three seconds on the clock with Texas A&M at the 2-yard line. The Alabama cornerback felt the stakes.
And he knowed it was coming his way.
As for Aggie’s sideline, Arnold later said he locked himself in A&M coach Jimbo Fisher.
“He goes ‘Evan, Evan, Evan’,” Arnold recalled.
Of course, Evan Stewart was his mission in the pass/fail moment at the center of the college football universe. A five-star member of Texas A&M’s top-ranked signing class of 2022, Stewart lived up to the billing at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Moments earlier, his 23-yard catch had helped set up that doomsday scenario as the 24-point underdog found himself on the cusp of a stunning second annual Crimson Tide.
The gravity of the moment was not lost on Arnold, a redshirt freshman who beat a former five-star recruit for his starting job. He played a crucial role on a night propitious for Alabama’s final meltdown, intercepting a second-quarter pass to set up what became a critical field goal.
Still, there was almost a growing sense of dread as aggravating errors, four turnovers and a return of kicking misfortunes had the top-seeded team on the verge of finding themselves in a ditch.
With an injured Bryce Young as a spectator on an evening of missed chances, Alabama was one game away from final collapse.
Arnold knew it.
“If they throw it my way, I don’t want to be the most hated man in Alabama,” Arnold said after noting that times like these were the reason he chose the Alabama.
On the other side of the field and moments earlier, Nick Saban called a time out when they saw Texas A&M’s final lineup. It looked a lot like something they had seen before.
“When they got a touchdown earlier, we were playing them upside down and trapping the dish thinking they’d kind of make a pick,” Saban said, “So as soon as they put four wides in the game we thought there would be something similar so we changed the leverage on guys.
It was basically a two-point conversion for the game, so Saban said that was how they were going to approach it. Diagramming the piece as part of his weekly TV show, Saban shed light on Arnold’s cover. He was alone on the short side of the field with Stewart, the hottest Aggie receiver of the night. The plan was for Arnold to use his influence to push Stewart on the outside because he had inside help from linebacker Henry To’o To’o and safety DeMarcco Hellams.
Up front, Will Anderson got to know Haynes King well all night. The outside linebacker had just recorded his eighth quarterback rush from a grueling night when the Aggies lined up for this win-win snap.
“What happened during that last play?” Anderson responded when asked about his recollection of that fever dream of a game. “I was just locked up doing my job. Whatever Coach Pete (Golding) called, we tried to execute it so we could win the game.
On his island, Arnold needed a short memory. He could have ended this game moments earlier at the start of Aggie’s last ride. Alabama fired it after a three-and-out, giving the visitors 1:50 on the clock and 71 yards to go.
The aforementioned 23-yard throw to Stewart was something of a magic trick at Arnold’s expense. With King about to be hit low, he threw one deep.
“I saw Haynes throw it and in my head I was like, ‘Wow, he just threw that,'” Arnold recalled. “I didn’t really time my jump and you saw what happened.”
The pass somehow slipped through his outstretched hands and straight into Stewart’s at the Alabama 37. They were officially in business as the worst-case scenario seemed increasingly imminent.
On the sidelines, Jalen Milroe was not worried. The backup quarterback who replaced Young had a classic hot and cold night with three turnovers and three touchdowns. It was out of his hands when Texas A&M lined up for one last play.
“I was calm,” Milroe said. “It comes down to our training in this situation. We practice repetition after repetition. I was happy because I knew exactly how it was going to be.
Yet it was the same Texas A&M team that Alabama had neglected a year ago. Just like 2021, a pre-season-No. Team 6 Aggie limped off the weekend in Alabama with two losses. Were they really about to pull the same string?
Saban all week warned of a disappointment and here he is, two yards, three seconds and a redshirt cornerback away from the final insult.
October 8 had been circled on every calendar since mid-May, so it didn’t seem too dramatic to build the moment against a John Williams film score.
And despite all the buildup, the final sequence ended almost as soon as it began.
Arnold forced Stewart out of the snap. King, if Arnold’s lip-reading was correct, followed orders and locked in on Stewart who burst into the end zone only to plant and return to the front pylon.
The throw never crossed the plane of the goal line.
Alabama survived by the slimmest of margins with good play call and plan execution.
“It was a great road,” Arnold said, “and I was in a perfect position and able to make a play.”
Saban, on a night steeped in imperfection, saw it all come together when they stood at the crossroads.
“Terrion made a good play,” he said, “and we covered the guys on the other side well as well.”
The wild celebration on the pitch ensued as Saban’s golf course worked its way to the midfield handshake with Fisher.
Alabama 24, Texas A&M 20 was more of a collective expiration than anything.
And while the Crimson Tide lived on the edge in Texas and Arkansas, nothing came as close to failure as Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
But when he was called home to eat at 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, the party certainly beat the alternative for the redshirt freshman who read Jimbo Fisher’s lips.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande Or on Facebook.