A poised Coker helps revive Alabama and keep the Tide alive

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Halftime rolled around, with still another kick drifting wide right, with two more Jake Coker passes to the wrong colored uniforms, and I started thinking about Nick Saban’s Monday press conference.

The one he might have to give this week … and the one he gave last week.

You know the one. When he griped that people had his team buried.

“We’d have to get some respirators out or something down there to put life back in people,” he said then.

Halftime rolled around, and I figure Saban was asking the equipment staff where the respirators were stored in the Alabama locker room.

It took ‘em long enough to find them.

It took Coker, once a question mark, now all straightened up into an exclamation point, to shrug off his two first-half interceptions and show the resilience that is the mark of a championship quarterback.

Alabama quaterback Jake Coker Photo by Kent Gidley

Alabama quaterback Jake Coker
Photo by Kent Gidley

It took respirators, perhaps a Saban halftime speech that peeled the paint off the locker room wall and more than a little bit of help from Arkansas – and Alabama is alive.

“We said at halftime, ‘This is when you find out who you are,’” Saban said afterward.

The Crimson Tide’s 27-14 Homecoming win over Arkansas was nowhere near that lopsided, at least not until the Tide took advantage of a bedraggled Razorbacks defense in the final quarter.

It was big on survival, short on style. Over the course of a long football season, the former is considerably more important.

A brutal stretch remains over the next four weeks. Alabama plays at No. 9 Texas A&M next week, where two solid halves will be required. Then comes Tennessee, which is athletic enough and just young enough to believe it can beat Alabama. And, after a bye, the Nov. 7 visit by LSU that could become the de facto SEC West title game.

For the first 40 minutes, things were grim for Alabama. There were two missed field goals in the first half – here’s the requisite brow-furrowing: how come Saban, the master recruiter, always seems lacking in the kicking department? — and the two Coker picks. Alabama was down 7-3 at the half, only the 12th time Alabama has trailed at intermission in the Saban era.

“We’ve got to finish drives,” Saban bemoaned going into the locker room.

The defibrillation of Alabama’s football season came at 1:39 of the third period, but it wasn’t a drive.

It was courtesy of the imagination of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the capable right arm of Coker and the speed and treachery of freshman receiver Calvin Ridley. With Kiffin gambling on the long pass from deep in Tide territory, Ridley made a move that left an Arkansas defensive back picking his skivvies up off the turf. Coker delivered the pass perfectly for an 81-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead.

Suddenly, a heartbeat.

Arkansas helped a little more with a fake punt, forcing an already weary defense back onto the field.

“A big play in the game was when we stopped their little fake punt thing,” Saban said.

Coker made it 17-7 with a Favre-esque sidearm toss to Richard Mullaney. It was time to unfurl the “Texas A&M U R Next” signs in the grandstands.

In Coker, it’s easy to take a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full viewpoint. The first-half picks dredged up memories of the five-turnover Ole Miss loss. The second half bounce-back was cause for comfort and optimism.

“He believes in himself, his team believes in him, his coaches believe in him,” ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge said. “You can tell he’s a different player.”

I believe the respirator Alabama needed plays quarterback.