TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Don’t count Matt Caddell’s Alabama teammates among those who were surprised the relatively anonymous fifth-year senior scored the Crimson Tide’s game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas on Saturday night.
Caddell had just 46 career catches and three touchdowns before Saturday night, but responded to a number of circumstances to haul in a career-best nine passes for 91 yards. None were bigger than his 4-yard touchdown reception with 8 seconds remaining, a play that made the Crimson Tide (3-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) a 41-38 victor over Arkansas.
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"He works hard every day," quarterback John Parker Wilson said of Caddell. "He’s a leader for our offense, just by what he does. For him to get this, I think he deserves it. He’s been here four, five years, and he deserves it. He’s a great guy and a great player."
Caddell came to Alabama with great credentials from McAdory High School in suburban Birmingham, where he was one of the top prospects in the state in 2003. He was a first-team all-state pick as a senior, when he averaged 27 yards per reception and ran back four punts for touchdowns.
But a combination of inconsistency catching the ball and the presence of more-gifted receivers on the Alabama roster relegated Caddell down the Crimson Tide’s receiver depth chart entering this season. Then star wideout DJ Hall aggravated a thigh injury midway through Saturday’s game with Arkansas, and Caddell was suddenly the Tide’s go-to receiver.
He caught four passes on Alabama’s game-winning drive, culminating in the touchdown. Hall was on the field but noticeably gimpy, and served as a decoy while Caddell operated out of the slot.
"Matt’s always been capable of making big plays, he just never had the opportunity to show what he can do," Hall said. "Today, it was all on him. We told him (during) that drive, ‘man, it’s all on you.’ He made some big catches for us. I’m just so excited for him, because he got the chance to show what he can do on the field."
Said Caddell: "Me and JP (Wilson) were talking right before that drive about how we were going to move the ball. We knew what time it was. When we got the ball back, we knew we could move the ball because we practice it every day. Just wanted to capitalize and make plays, take advantage of our opportunities."
Though Caddell was at the top of his game, Wilson still spread the ball around on the final drive. He connected with Keith Brown twice — including a key 9-yard gain to the Arkansas 4 — and threw to Mike McCoy twice, though McCoy dropped a pass at the goal line just before the final touchdown.
The last play was all Caddell, though, a designed fade route into the left corner of the end zone. Wilson lofted the ball high, and the 5-foot-11 Caddell outleaped Arkansas cornerback Jamar Love for the score, clutching the ball with both hands tightly against his chest before Love shoved him to the ground.
He held on, however, and Alabama had its biggest comeback win at home in more than 10 years.
"Just see the ball and go make the catch, that’s basically what it was," Caddell said. "The way the route was designed was to make (Wilson) throw it into the corner. JP did a great job, a great ball, the line protected pretty well and I was able to make the play.
"It’s a blessing. It’s a great feeling, just knowing I could contribute to the win. I’m just glad I got the opportunity."
Caddell’s play lifted Alabama to a 3-0 start for the fourth consecutive season, and also launched the Crimson Tide back into the national consciousness.
Alabama made the Top 25 rankings for the first time this year Sunday, checking in at No. 16 in the Associated Press media poll and No. 21 in the USA Today coaches’ rankings.
Next up is Georgia for another nationally televised night game on ESPN. The Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1) visit Bryant-Denny Stadium for a 7:45 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.
The Bulldogs are also ranked this week, No. 22 by the AP and No. 21 by the coaches.
But Saturday’s win over Arkansas gave the Crimson Tide all the confidence it needs to take on a ranked opponent at home.
"I think it’s great momentum going into Georgia next week," Wilson said. "We’ve just got to build on it. We can’t get complacent after this win. We’ve got to go out and work, practice Monday and get ready for Georgia. We can’t think about this too long . . . and then just start working again."