Gil LeBreton

Alabama’s King Saban reaches deep into playbook to survive Clemson

Marlon Humphrey catches an onside kick for Alabama during the second half Monday. The Tide scored two plays later against the stunned Clemson Tigers on a 51-yard pass from Jake Coker to O.J. Howard.
Marlon Humphrey catches an onside kick for Alabama during the second half Monday. The Tide scored two plays later against the stunned Clemson Tigers on a 51-yard pass from Jake Coker to O.J. Howard. AP

An onside kick. A kickoff return for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

I know what you’re thinking:

It’s good to see a deprived football team like Alabama finally catch a break.

The Crimson Tide won the college football lottery Monday night — for the 16th time, by their own modest count.

But it wasn’t Nick Saban and the Tide’s usual scorched earth march to the trophy podium.

Instead, blood was shed in this College Football Playoff championship game. Sweat was spotted on Saban’s usually self-assured brow. The Tide prevailed over the Clemson Tigers 45-40 in a title game classic.

It took a simple rock to fell Goliath. Buster Douglas ended the Mike Tyson legend with an uppercut.

And the Clemson Tigers, too, for much of Monday night, appeared to have a giant-toppling plan. But you come at the king, you’d best not miss the king.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, after dazzling the Alabama defense with his feet and his arm all night, had taken the undefeated Tigers into the fourth quarter with a 24-21 lead.

But after the Tide tied it up with an Adam Griffith field goal, Saban shocked the Tigers — and perhaps, even himself — by dusting off the page in the playbook titled, “Onside Kick.”

Alabama doesn’t onside kick. Alabama doesn’t have to. By the fourth quarter, Alabama doesn’t usually need the football. It needs only the TV guys to lather them up with hosannas and the adoring Alabama fans to rattle off a few “Roll-Tide-Rolls”.

But Saban tried it anyway, and Marlon Humphrey caught the kick on a dead run.

Alabama scored two plays later against the stunned Tigers on a 51-yard pass from Jake Coker to O.J. Howard.

The Tide would never trail again.

Saban, as he does to many media questions, shrugged off any suggestion that the onside kick was an uncharacteristic risk.

"The way they lined up," the coach said, "it was available to us. If we didn’t get it, they would have had the ball around the 45-yard line. So it’s not really like it was the end of the world."

But just for good measure, just to show you that in college football the rich do usually get richer, after Clemson scored on a field goal, Alabama’s Kenyan Drake ran the ensuing kickoff back 95 yards for a dagger-in-the-heart touchdown.

For Clemson, it had to break spirits as well as hearts.

"Great play by them," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "It was a huge play, and then we followed it up with a bust for a touchdown. So it was a combination of mistakes.

"But give them credit. They took advantage of all those opportunities."

All night long, the Tigers had proven up to the task of matching the mighty Tide on both sides of the ball. Watson’s running, the pass catching of Hunter Renfrow and Charone Peake, and the defensive work of Shaq Lawson and Ben Boulware had all but played the Crimson Tide off their feet.

But if you go at the king, you’d better not miss. Alabama’s storied depth, with four- and five-star recruits filling the roster and manning the special teams, finally turned the game in the Tide’s favor in the final quarter. Until then, Alabama had relied upon big plays to keep pace with the Tigers.

Watson finished with 73 net yards rushing and 405 yards passing — 405 against a Saban-coached team! The Tigers added 31 first downs and finished the night with 550 total yards.

But Alabama, being Alabama, never appeared stressed. Which is likely why the onside kick seemed to stun the audience, as well as the Tigers, so much.

"I think that, at least, the nation saw tonight why we've been so successful," Swinney said. "They saw the heart of our team. They competed. We out-gained them. I thought we physically matched up great with these guys."

Besides the 95-yard kickoff return, however, Alabama was able to strike with big plays of 38, 50, 51, 53 and 63 yards.

Nick Saban doesn’t usually need tricks to pull championships out of his hat. Saban wins so often and seems so in control of things, he doesn’t even wear a hat.

A classic championship game, though, needed a classic finish. Even if the coach had to dig back to page 305 or whatever of the playbook to find it.

The Tide rolled again. Sort of.

It all counts. Long live the king.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, glebreton, @gilebreton

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