Daily Dose of Crimson Tide: The Perfect Onside Kick
There were a little under 11 minutes remaining on the clock of the National Championship Game and the University of Alabama had just tied the score when Nick Saban made the call of a lifetime.
With Alabama struggling to stop Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and the momentum up for grabs he decided to go for an onside kick in hopes of catching the Tigers by surprise.
It did more than that.
With kicker Adam Griffith striking the ball perfectly and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey racing to jump up and catch it before anyone from the other side could sufficiently react, Alabama went on to survive a wild 45-40 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium and claim the national championship trophy for the 2015 season.
“The way we line up on kickoffs with squeeze formation and try to corner kick the ball, when a team squeezes the formation like that, we call it pop kick,” Saban described. “I thought we had it in the game any time we wanted to do it. I made the decision to do it because the score was [24-24] 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.
“Getting that onside kick, I think, did change the momentum of the game. We scored on a big play two plays later, and then we had a kickoff return for a touchdown, too, which was huge. So special teams was really big for us in this game.”
Even with Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kick return for a touchdown and three scoring plays from the 50-yard line and beyond the onside kick was the one most people were talking about afterward.
Many of the Crimson Tide players said it the gutsiest call they’d ever seen.
“That was amazing,” said senior wide receiver Richard Mullaney, who was one of Drake's lead blockers on the touchdown.
Although the play looked completely spontaneous, Alabama had actually been practicing it since Week 3 of the regular season and was just waiting for the right opportunity. When Saban saw how Clemson lined up after running back Derrick Henry opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown run he knew he had that potential ace in the hole.
“We have a fake field goal, we have a fake when we punt, we have an onside kick, a surprise onside kick,” Saban said during his postgame press conference. “So basically we have someone assigned in the press box who's saying, ‘Did they line up like we thought they would? Did they have the play that we want in any of these circumstances?’
“The first time that we kicked off, after Derrick's touchdown, we said okay, we've got that. If we want to try that, we think we have a good chance because of the spacing on the field that's available to us. So it worked.”
But how many coaches would call it in the fourth quarter with everything on the line, including Saban’s place in history after wining all four of his previous shots at a national title?
“It was just a matter of Adam Griffth kicking the ball to the right spot, and us not being offside,” said special-teams coach Bobby Williams, who estimated that the play’s success rate during practices was about “50-50.”
“I almost dropped the ball almost every time,” Humphrey said about the misses, as catching a bouncing ball like that is tougher than it looks.
What further prompted the decision was Clemson having controlled the clock for 9:45 of the third quarter, resulting in 10 unanswered points. After Watson had accounted for 207 total yards in the first half, he tallied another 101 in the third quarter and was having more success running as the game progressed.
So when Griffith made a 33-yard field goal with 10:34 to go, Saban decided that the upside of giving Watson one fewer opportunity was work the risk.
Probably the toughest part of the play was not doing anything that might tip Clemson off, and Alabama lined up just like it had every other time in the game, with, to the kicker’s right, Michael Nyswander, Dillon Lee, Keith Holcombe, Drake, and Humphrey on the end.
Someone who hadn’t done his homework may have simply thought “freshman,” and nothing more. But in addition to being the son of Alabama legend Bobby Humphrey, he’s a sprinter for the Alabama track team during the football offseason.
Humphrey got off to such a good jump with the kick into open space that combined with the nearest Clemson players caught flatfooted Swinney could only scream and hope for an offsides penalty that didn’t exist and was never called. While everyone’s else’s reaction seemed to be “Wow,” cameras caught Saban’s beaming smile on the sideline while the broadcast crew prepared to show the first of numerous replays that confirmed the Crimson Tide had just pulled off football's version of highway robbery.
“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. And I didn't think it was—I had confidence in the players. I trusted them, that they would go out and execute it and do it.
“I mean, if we didn't get it, they'd have got the ball on the 45 or 50-yard line, so it's not really like it would have been the end of the world, but it was worth the risk I felt. But it was calculated on the fact that I thought we could execute it and the way they lined up, it was available to us. And it was something that I knew that we would use in this game if we needed to.”
Nevertheless, Alabama subsequently never looked back, especially after two plays later when tight end O.J. Howard ran uncovered through the Clemson secondary and caught a 51-yard touchdown pass for a lead the Crimson Tide would never relinquish.
“It got the sideline energized,” Howard said. “Everybody was pumped up.”
Down 31-24, stunned Clemson finally shook it off and countered with a quick field goal, but Drake’s answering touchdown made it a two-score game with 7:31 remaining. The Tigers didn’t give up, yet the outcome was really no loner in doubt.
“But let me say this,” said Saban to a room full of reporters after getting a Gatorade bath. “You don't look like the type that would do it to me, but if we wouldn't have got that, y'all would be killing me now.”
Some of this post originated from "100 Things Crimson tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die," published by Triumph Books