September 30, 2012 2:03:02 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The No. 1 University of Alabama football team actually trailed for a change, a predicament that lasted 15 seconds.
Amari Cooper caught two touchdown passes from AJ McCarron and Christion Jones returned a kickoff 99 yards for another score, leading the Crimson Tide to a 33-14 victory against the University of Mississippi on Saturday night after a rare and early deficit.
The Tide (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) trailed briefly, 7-6, for the first time in regulation since last year's Tennessee game, a span of about 10 games. The Rebels (3-2, 0-1) put up a fight against a team that had been walloping opponents by nearly 37 points on average, but still lost their ninth straight SEC opener.
"It was a hard-fought win for us," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I think people probably don't give Ole Miss enough credit. They played hard. They were physical. Their offense is difficult to defend."
Saban had tried to keep his players focused by broadcasting Tim Tebow's memorable speech after the Rebels upset Florida four years ago in the weight room and meeting rooms. Alabama goes into its open week without needing such a podium prompter.
McCarron completed 22 of 30 passes for 180 yards and Eddie Lacy gained much of his 82 yards in the fourth quarter when Alabama put it away with Jeremy Shelley's third and fourth field goals of the game.
The Tide's defense had three interceptions to bail out an offense that sputtered at times.
"Couldn't be more proud of the effort," Rebels first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. "Real pleased with the effort and fight our kids showed. They laid it on the line. They represented Rebel nation and the university very well.
"Our special teams were atrocious. We turned the football over because of us being greedy. It's hard to drive the football on the defense that they have."
Alabama totaled 305 yards against a defense that gave up 66 points and 676 yards to Texas two weeks ago. The Rebels gained 218 yards in a game that was largely controlled by the defenses after days when SEC teams like Texas A&M and Georgia rolled up 50-plus points.
Lacy had 12 carries for 43 yards through three quarters. Cooper collected eight catches for 84 yards.
McCarron broke Brodie Croyle's school mark of 190 consecutive passes without an interception. He finished the game with 206 in a row.
Bo Wallace was 15-of-26 passing for 123 yards for Ole Miss and was intercepted twice. Jeff Scott, the SEC's No. 5 rusher, was limited to 49 yards on 19 carries with a touchdown.
Ole Miss did something no other team had done in about 10 games: Got a lead on Alabama in regulation. It lasted only as long as it took Jones to run back the ensuing kick.
Scott cut inside for a 1-yard touchdown early in the second quarter for a 7-6 lead. That ended the Tide's streak at 603 minutes, 46 seconds dating back to a 3-0 first quarter deficit against the Volunteers last season.
It was fleeting. Jones raced untouched for a touchdown after grabbing the ball on a high bounce at the goal line and Alabama scored two more TDs before halftime to surge to a 27-7 lead.
It was Alabama's first kick return for a TD since Trent Richardson did it against Duke on Sept. 18, 2010.
"When they scored ... I kind of wanted to change the atmosphere of the game, the flow of the game, and not make it so the offense had to drive down," he said. "In my mind I was thinking, 'Yeah, let's go ahead and get one to the house, let's change the atmosphere of the game."'
Mission accomplished for Jones.
Then, Dee Milliner intercepted a pass that Wallace threw right to him. Three plays later, McCarron hit the playmaking freshman Cooper for a 16-yard touchdown. It was ruled incomplete, but a review overturned the call after replays showed he had possession with a foot in bounds and the ball stretched just across the goal line.
Cooper reached over Frank Crawford in the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown. Both his scores were on third-down plays.
The Tide defense picked off passes on consecutive on consecutive drives after Ole Miss scored its first touchdown.
"That was the turning point in the game," Saban said. "We really only put one true drive together. Those turnovers were really the difference in the game."
Ole Miss didn't score again until Randall Mackey's 12-yard touchdown run with 6:35 left in the third quarter trimmed the deficit to 27-14. The Rebels converted two fourth-down plays on the drive, on a Jeff Scott run and catch.
The Rebels had one final chance to stay in the game. They inched across midfield midway through the fourth but had to punt and Alabama ran most of the clock down with a ground game mostly held in check before getting another field goal.
"The mistakes really hurt us," Mackey said "We kind of hurt ourselves really. We wanted to hit them in the mouth and we did. When you play Bama, they're the best of the best. It gives us confidence in the way we played. We've just got to stop the mistakes.
"Every time you play Alabama, it's their defense. You can't give them anything."