Football Writers Association of America 2007 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: GAME (IMMEDIATE DEADLINE)
Missing the point: Tiffin's four misses include two potential game-winning kicks
Ian R. Rapoport, The Birmingham News

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. Everything Alabama football coach Mike Shula did at the end of the game was predicated on one assumption. Every time he signaled for a running play and every time he milked the clock, it was all based on the same belief:

That freshman kicker Leigh Tiffin would line it up and knock it through.

Twice, Alabama put Tiffin in a position to win it with a field goal. Once more, it allowed him to, at least, force a third overtime with an extra point.

Yet in the end, following Alabama's spirit-crushing 24- 23 loss to Arkansas in double overtime in front of an announced crowd of 74,687 at Razorback Stadium on Saturday, there was Tiffin explaining why he missed all of those.

Ian R. Rapoport
The Birmingam News, Birmingham, Ala.
Age: 27
College: Columbia
Background: Ian is in his second year covering the University of Alabama for The Birmingham News. Previously, he spent two years as The Jackson Clarion-Ledger's Mississippi State beat reporter. He has also worked for The (Westchester, N.Y) Journal News and served as an intern for ESPN Classic. At Columbia, he divided his time between the Columbia Daily Spectator and rowing on the lightweight crew team. When he's not writing, Ian hones his golf game, refines his grilling skills, and collects Pez dispensers. In 2006, among other local honors, he earned third place for game stories in the FWAA Best Writing Contest.

"I had a rough night," he said. "You go out there, you line up every kick, you concentrate like you're trying to make it. It just didn't happen."

So Alabama (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) suffered its first loss of the season against Arkansas (3-1, 2-0). In two games, the walk-on filling in for injured junior starter Jamie Christensen went from hero to goat.

Alabama now travels to play No. 5 Florida, trying to shake off a loss coach that Mike Shula called "heartbreaking."

"It's something to overcome real fast," Tide running back Kenneth Darby said. "We have to bounce back." In most areas, Alabama did enough to stay undefeated. At the end of regulation, thanks to 12 rushing plays, the Tide marched to the 13-yard line to set up Tiffin's 30- yard attempt.

Nope.

In the first overtime, after Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain threw an interception, Shula signaled in three runs for Darby, who finished with 69 yards on 26 carries. That set up Tiffin's 37-yard attempt.

Nope.

On the first possession of the second overtime, sophomore quarterback John Parker Wilson, who was 16-of-20 passing for 243 yards and three TDs in his first road start, found tight end Nick Walker for a 1-yard touchdown pass. All that was needed was a Tiffin extra point.

Nope.

When it was all over, when Arkansas had cleaned up its raucous celebration sparked by Mustain's 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Cleveland and Jeremy Davis' extra point, Tiffin's teammates stood by him.

"I better not hear nobody point no finger at Leigh," said receiver DJ Hall, who made six catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. "Nobody out there played a perfect game. I know I didn't."

Perfection, this game was not for the Tide. It committed 11 penalties for 65 yards. Wilson lost a fumble that safety Randy Kelly picked up for his team's first turnover of the season and ran 40 yards into the end zone.

Tiffin also missed his first field goal attempt that would've tied the game at 3.

Yet what stands out is that, even with all the gaffes, Alabama could've and maybe should've been the team dancing around.

"It's tough to swallow," Shula said. Alabama went ahead on a 99-yard drive to make the game 7-3 with 8:50 left in the first half. A career-long 76- yard touchdown reception by Hall finished it.

Late in the half, the Tide put together another drive, keyed by two Wilson scrambles, one on a fourth-and-1. That led to Tiffin's 46-yard field goal to make it 10-3 at halftime.

Arkansas made it 10-9 on a 3-yard run by Darren McFadden, who had 25 carries for 112 yards. The fumble return and two-point conversion put the score at 17- 10, Razorbacks.

"There were times when we could've folded it up and quit," defensive coordinator Joe Kines said. The answer came 10 plays and 75 yards later on Keith Brown's 14-yard touchdown catch.

After a Jeffrey Dukes interception, Alabama took 12:03 off the clock to drive to the 13 with 3:06 left. The offense took no chances, handing it off 12 times.

"You play the percentages there," Shula said. "Knowing it wasn't a long kick, you let him kick it through. It's a feeling, and you go with it you believe your players can win games."

Instead, Tiffin missed it right.

It was no different in the first overtime, when three running plays gained five yards before Tiffin missed a 37-yarder.

In the second overtime, after the Tide scored, Shula said he considered going with Christensen, who had taken only a few live repetitions. He might have been the choice for a field goal attempt then, but Shula picked Tiffin to try the extra point.

"Tough call," Shula said.

When the PAT was no good, Arkansas marched down in four plays and scored. That set up Davis' extra point try.

Yep.

Comment of the judge, Mickey Spagnola: Great rhythm to this game story, and it pulled me in, wanting me to read it all, even if I already had know the score. Game stories are tough, but the writer here tells me a story.

Second place: Pete Thamel, The New York Times
Third place: Chris Dufresne, The Los Angeles Times
Honorable mention: Rich Kaipust, Omaha World-Herald