TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix couldn't believe it. Alabama's young safety watched the football bounce into the air and fall back into the quarterback's hands, and before he had time to process it all, a Heisman Trophy moment was born at his defense's expense. Johnny Manziel broke containment, spun a few steps to his left and found a wide open Ryan Swope in the back of the end zone to give Texas A&M a two-touchdown lead against the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide at home in Tuscaloosa.
"I was like, 'Wow, we've got to find something to do with this guy,'" Clinton-Dix said less than a year later, recalling the second of three touchdowns Manziel would score in the first quarter that day. "He's an amazing quarterback and that's a prime example of how he extends plays and makes things happen."
Much of the offseason has been devoted to figuring out the riddle that is Johnny Football, Texas A&M and up-tempo offenses like the one employed by its coach, Kevin Sumlin. Alabama's defense was big and strong and sound, but against Texas A&M it faltered. For the first time in a long time, Alabama got punched in the mouth, knocked out by a flurry of early punches. By the time it got off the mat, it was already too late. The Aggies upset Alabama at home and the loss has gnawed at players ever since.
As Clinton-Dix told reporters Monday, "It hurt as a defensive back to see him complete those passes." He couldn't believe that one player could make his defense, and his team, look so bad.
The first quarter was the worst Bryant-Denny Stadium had seen in quite some time. Total shock swept through the bleachers. Just a week after a last-minute escape from Death Valley, Alabama was back inside the lion's den, this time in its own backyard, a cage built by its own hands.
"We probably dug a ditch that we couldn't quite dig out of," Saban said after the game.
Defensively, it was bad. Alabama had no answer for Manziel. But offensively, it wasn't any better. The team that had gone three-and-out once every four drives coming into the game, went three-and-out on three consecutive drives to start it. And every time Texas A&M got the ball back, it scored.
The 20-0 hole was one of the chief reasons Alabama lost to Texas A&M a year ago. The defense would settle down, but that wasn't enough. So much caught up with Alabama that day: the Tide abandoned the power running game, rushing the ball just once late in the fourth quarter after reaching a first down on the Texas A&M 6-yard line; AJ McCarron's streak of 291 passes without an interception ended with not one, but two picks; and the defense, long thought to be infallible, was shown to be merely human, jumping offsides on a third-down play that could have given Alabama back the ball with a chance to win the game.
Take away any one of those things, or even just one of McCarron's two turnovers, and the outcome would have been different. Alabama would have won, Manziel might not have claimed the Heisman and this week's game would be only really interesting instead of really, really, really interesting.
And because of that, there's reason to believe Alabama will exact its revenge. Heading into this season's rematch, there's something to build off. It's hard to believe that so much can go so wrong again.
For starters, Alabama won't face the unenviable task of following one tough game with another. "The Drive" in Baton Rouge, La., where McCarron found T.J. Yeldon for the come-from-behind touchdown, was an emotional way to end a 60-minute slugfest a week earlier. As McCarron said, "It was just exhaustion, really." Waking up the next day to prepare for Texas A&M couldn't have been easy.
This time, Alabama took care of Virginia Tech with ease in Week 1 and took off Week 2 with a bye. Saban lamented the stop-and-go nature of the schedule, but he couldn't deny the positive in having the extra time to prepare.
"It is what it is and I think we had a good week in terms of doing what we could do," he said. "And it did give us a little extra time to prepare for some of the things we may see in this game."
Part of that preparation was devising ways to stop Manziel, who was simulated in practice by backup quarterbacks Luke Del Rio and Cooper Bateman. Surely, Blake Sims, a former receiver turned quarterback, played the part of Johnny Football as well.
Saban said the goal won't necessarily be to turn Manziel into a pocket passer, but to tighten up the containment around him and negate the potential for big gains. Treating him like a normal quarterback won't work. If the defense does, another 20-0 hole could be in Alabama's future.
"I told our players, I said, ‘There's a lot of NFL games on Sundays. You want to watch the quarterback, go watch those games. But if you start watching this guy in our game, you're going to get busted,’" Saban said. "It happened in our game last year. We've got people covered pretty well, you look back at the quarterback and their receivers do a good job of extending the play and getting away from it. He finds them and makes big plays."
Said Clinton-Dix: "We weren't really locked in. They're a fast-paced offense and we weren't really expecting that. They came out and were extending plays for eight, nine, 10 seconds and we were getting tired and little frustrated. After a while, we just calmed down and got into a groove."
The hope for Clinton-Dix and the rest of the Alabama defense is that that groove, the one that held the Aggies to nine points over the final three quarters of last year's game, carries over into Saturday.
For Saban, that means avoiding mistakes like the ones his team committed in last year's game: assignment errors, missed assignments, undisciplined eye control, poor blocking, poor tackling.
"When you look back and say, ‘What happened in the game before?’ A lot of those things were issues and problems," Saban said. "Everybody has to take care of business. We have to be our team, playing our game, taking care of our business. Everybody has to do their job. When you play against really good players … any lack of that ability to focus and discipline is going to help them be able to make those plays. If you take care of the little things, do the little things right, it’s going to give you the best opportunity to be successful.
"It’s like if you take care of the cents, the dollars can add up. If you don’t, it never happens."