Nick Saban isn’t one to resort to trickery.
So dominant is Alabama most times that gimmickry and hocus-pocus are seldom required to do the deed.
But with the national championship on the line five minutes into Monday’s fourth quarter, Saban decided it was time to reach deep into his pocket and order up a surprise play that would stun Clemson and, very likely, alter the outcome.
With the score tied, Saban called for an onside kick. It worked to perfection. Alabama recovered and, two plays later, scored the go-ahead touchdown in an epic 45-40 victory over No. 1 Clemson.
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“I made the decision to do it because the score was 21-21 and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped, and I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win,” Saban explained afterward.
It could go down as one of the great, gutsy gambles in one of the greatest college football title games ever. (An ESPN writer already ranked it as the fourth-greatest championship game.)
“Getting that onside kick, I think, did change the momentum of the game,” said Saban, who pocketed his fifth national championship — four coming at Bama — as a head coach.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t disagree.
“That was a huge, huge play in the game because I felt like we had all the momentum and were getting ready to get the ball back,” Swinney said of the once-unbeaten Tigers.
On a night when the nation’s top-ranked defense was shredded by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, it took two big plays on special teams to overcome the individual performance.
Watson passed for 405 yards and ran for another 73, giving him more total offensive yardage than the entire Alabama offense (473 combined yards). Watson threw four touchdown passes, and Clemson recorded far more first downs (31) than Alabama (18).
But Alabama came up with the big plays when they needed them.
The Crimson Tide had four touchdowns of 50 or more yards:
▪ Derrick Henry’s 50-yard TD burst in the first quarter.
▪ O.J. Howard’s 53-yard pass reception from Jake Coker in the third.
▪ Howard’s 51-yard TD snag from Coker in the fourth.
▪ And Kenyan Drake’s back-breaking, 95-yard kickoff return in the fourth.
“I think special teams was huge in this game [Monday night],” Saban said. “A kickoff return for a touchdown [and] onside kick, probably changed the momentum of the game.”
Did it ever.
Alabama and Clemson spent most of the night trading punches in an offensive fireworks show few saw coming. It was 14-7 Clemson after the first quarter. But it was the fourth quarter that kept the scoreboard operator busiest.
The two teams scored 40 points alone (five touchdowns, two field goals) in the fourth quarter, with some form of scoring occurring on each of the final seven possessions of the game.
The pivotal moment came with just over 10 minutes to go.
Alabama had just made it 24-24 on an Adam Griffith field goal when Saban called for the onside kick, or “pop kick,” as he termed it.
“I mean, if we didn’t get it, they’d have got the ball at the 45- or 50-yard line, so it’s not really like it would have been the end of the world,” Saban said. “But it was worth the risk, I felt.”
When the Crimson Tide had practiced the play during the walk-through one day earlier, kick-team specialist Marlon Humphrey had dropped the “pop.” This time, he didn’t. The perfectly placed onside kick dropped straight into his arms, and Coker hit Howard on the 51-yard, go-ahead touchdown two plays later.
“Look, I felt pretty good about our chances of getting the onside kick because Griff kicks it well,” Saban said. “We did it in practice most of the time. I had confidence in the players. I trusted them, that they would go out and execute it and do it.”