Alabama’s 2009 national championship season was a big moment for Crimson Tide football.
It ended a long drought for a program that’s known nothing but titles and trophies. It signified Alabama was back on top of the college football world and would be for years to come.
But none of it would have been possible without the big left hand of Terrence Cody.
Mt. Cody, as he was called during his two-year career at Alabama, used all of his 6-foot-5, 354-pound frame to break through Tennessee’s offensive line and swat down a game-winning field goal attempt by Daniel Lincoln with four seconds to play and the Crimson Tide clinging to a 12-10 lead.
“Somebody tagged me in a video of that play the other day and it brought back that memory,” Cody said.
To folks in Tuscaloosa and around Alabama it’s known as ‘Rocky Block.’ It’s more than just a significant play; it’s more than just a crazy ending to a thrilling victory. ‘Rocky Block’ kept Alabama at No. 1, kept it unbeaten, and more importantly, kept the Crimson Tide in the hunt for the national title.
Not so easy
Tennessee came into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Oct. 24, 2009 with a 3-3 record with losses to UCLA, Florida and Auburn. The Vols were under first-year coach Lane Kiffin, who was trying to turn around a program that went 5-7 the previous year.
Kiffin’s Vols came into Tuscaloosa with some momentum, having beaten Georgia the week before.
“We knew coming in that it was going to be a tough game,” Cody said. “They were actually pretty good that year and had a real solid team, especially on defense.”
Alabama’s offense was averaging 34.5 points per game at that point of the season but found it tough sledding against the Vols. Alabama could not find the end zone.
“It was a dogfight,” former Alabama tight end Brad Smelley said. “We couldn’t get anything going on offense. We felt like we should have come in there and whupped ‘em. It didn’t turn out that way, but that’s the way it can be every week in the SEC.”
Fortunately for Alabama, whose defense was one of the best in the country that season, Tennessee couldn’t get the ball into the end zone either. At halftime, both teams had settled for field goals and Alabama led 9-3.
“We knew they were a good team,” said former Alabama tight end Michael Williams. “Their record didn’t show it at the time, but whenever you have a defense with Eric Berry on it, they have a pretty legit defense. We knew it was going to be a tough, four-quarter game.
“I think Lane (Kiffin) came with a perfect game plan for us at that time and they executed it well. They controlled the ball, they played great defense, they stopped our run.”
The blocked kick to end the game is what everyone remembers during this slugfest. But it wasn’t Cody’s only big play. He blocked a Lincoln field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter, which turned out to be crucial. The field goal would have cut Alabama’s lead to 9-6.
“It was a max block call,” Cody said. “You go all out on one person and try to get some knockback. Me and Marcell Dareus, we just destroyed the line that first time when I blocked the first one.”
Alabama drove down and Leigh Tiffin kicked another field goal, his fourth of the game, and the Crimson Tide had a 12-3 lead. Tennessee stalled on its next drive and Alabama got the ball back with just over five minutes to play and the game was seemingly put away.
“We are up 12-3 and we cough up the ball,” Smelley said. “Mark (Ingram) fumbled the ball and they got it. They went down the field and put a 50-yard drive together.”
It was a 43-yard drive, but it ended with the game’s only touchdown that cut the Crimson Tide lead to 12-10. Tennessee recovered the onside kick, getting the ball back with just over two minutes left.
“I’ve always made the point that I’ve never been nervous in a football game while at Alabama other than the Georgia Southern game because I’ve never seen that type of offense and stuff that they were able to do,” Williams said. “I never got nervous. I knew what our defense was capable of and knew what type of team we had. You trusted Rolando McClain, you trusted Kareem Jackson and Javy (Arenas) and those guys to make plays.”
The Vols moved the ball to the Alabama 28 and with four seconds left Lincoln trotted onto the field.
Alabama coach Nick Saban called timeout to ice Lincoln and go over the kick block strategy.
“When coach called timeout before (Lincoln) kicked that last field goal I had already put it in my mind that I was going to make a play,” Cody said. “It was crunch time and our backs were against the wall and it was like, somebody’s gotta make a play and don’t wait for the next person to step up. I was one of those guys and it was my time.”
Tennessee lined up for the field goal with Alabama’s perfect season hanging in the balance.
“I was just praying. That’s all I can say,” Smelley said.
Cody made sure that prayer was answered. He lined up directly over the left guard with teammate Brandon Deadrick squeezed in tight to his right and Dareus to his left.
“I timed the snap and got some knockback on the line and just threw my hand up,” Cody said. “And all I felt was something hit my arm and that whole stadium just went crazy. I was like, ‘oh, man I must have blocked it,’ and I just took off running.”
Cody threw his helmet off and began celebrating. The rest of the players on the field began searching for the ball, which was still rolling on the turf behind them. Julio Jones and McClain spotted the ball and McClain fell on it to end the game.
“Obviously that play was really significant in terms of that team and what that team was able to accomplish and what that team was able to do,” Saban said. “My thoughts before the kick was that we didn’t play particularly well during the game. My thoughts afterwards were it was a great play by a lot of great players. It was a great effort on (Cody’s) part.”
The crowd inside Bryant-Denny Stadium erupted after Cody’s season-saving play. After a few moments the significance of what he did hit him. Hard.
“There were a bunch of emotions going on,” Cody said. “I dropped down to my knees. I was actually crying a little bit. It’s one of my best memories as a ball player – winning the game in the last second to keep us undefeated and make it to the national championship game. It was just a special moment in my life.”
After Cody finally made it back to the locker room he was met by ecstatic teammates and coaches, who all wanted to congratulate him. There was just one problem. Cody said he injured his shoulder in practice the week before and the pain medicine he took had worn off during the middle of the game.
“I came into the locker room after the game holding my shoulder and everybody was like slapping me on the shoulder,” Cody said. “It was painful, but it was a great moment. Everybody was excited and coach Saban came up to me personally and shook my hand and told me – he always called me 6-2 – so he was like, ‘good game 6-2, way to make a play.’ The whole time I’m in pain but was like, ‘thank you, coach.’”
Julio the hero?
The video of Cody’s block has been seen over and over again on Alabama highlight clips. Most folks, including Cody, feel even if Cody hadn’t made the block Jones most likely would have.
The 6-4 Crimson Tide receiver got a running start after the ball was snapped and made a huge leap with his arms extended upward.
“I’m not sure if Julio or somebody else would have blocked the kick if (Cody) didn’t block it,” Saban said. “It was a great win for us.”
Said Williams, “If Cody didn’t block it I felt Julio would have blocked it.”
“If it wasn’t Cody it would have been somebody else,” he said. “I definitely think Julio would have gotten it. He got up there pretty high. It was just an amazing effort. We were not going to be denied that victory.”
The game with Tennessee was the closest Alabama came in 2009 to losing a game. It didn’t go unnoticed by Saban or the players.
It got everyone’s attention.
“Sometimes in rivalry games you have those kind of tough tests and you’ve got to be ready for it and you’ve got to compete for 60 minutes in the game and we were very fortunate to be able to come out on top,” Saban said.
For Alabama it was a wake-up call.
“Every season is a challenge and there is going to be a game or two where you get your manhood challenged and that was our game,” Williams said. “It made us better and it made us realize the importance of preparation and the importance of doing your job at the right time. That game definitely pushed us on to the national championship game that year.”
There were several big moments from the 2009 season. Mark Ingram becoming the Crimson Tide’s first Heisman Trophy winner stands out. Roy Upchurch catching the game-winning pass from Greg McElroy in a come-from-behind win against Auburn is a big one. Defeating Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC Championship Game is right up there.
But ‘Rocky Block’ could be the best one of all. It is for Cody.
“It’s one of my best memories as a ball player – winning the game in the last second to keep us undefeated and make it to the national championship game,” Cody said.
“It was just a special moment in my life.”