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GLENDALE, Ariz. – Once a week since late August, the Alabama kickoff team had practiced the "pop kick."
But the trick play never transitioned from the practice field into a game. After months of meaningless dress rehearsals, the Crimson Tide players could be forgiven for wondering why they were still working on an onside kick that never gets called.
"We're going to run it one day," special teams coordinator Bobby Williams assured his players.
That day turned out to be the last day of the season. Monday. In the fourth quarter of a buck-wild, seesawing, drama-filled national championship game against a resolute and talented Clemson team. With the score tied and the season hanging in the balance, Nick Saban called the biggest and boldest onside kick since New Orleans coach Sean Payton dialed one up to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV.
[ STACK: Derrick Henry broke Alabama's rushing record, but will the NFL break him? ]
Alabama had seen the opportunity on film, and earlier in the game. Clemson safety Jayron Kearse, the man on the far left end of the Tigers' return team, was prone to turning and running before the ball was kicked. And on previous kicks Monday night, the Tigers had squeezed their return formation toward the middle of the field and left the sideline uncovered.
"We had the opportunity to outflank them," Williams said.
They rehearsed the onside kick one last time Saturday during their practice at Arizona State. Kicker Adam Griffith blooped it perfectly to the right, defensive back Marlon Humphrey sprinted underneath it … and dropped it. Not for the first time.
"I usually drop the ball," Humphrey said. "So I was really nervous."
Turned out, there was no reason to be nervous. The play so completely caught Clemson off-guard that it was a milk run.
Nobody was offside – a critical detail that Williams had drilled into his coverage unit weekly. Griffith again popped it up perfectly – "right when I hit the ball, I knew it was good," he said. Humphrey was basically by himself to cradle it in – and this time he didn't drop it.
Griffith, at 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds a veritable Lilliputian on a team full of giant physical specimens, was embraced by an erupting Alabama sideline.
"I got jumped," he said.
And Nick Saban, the most dour football coach this side of friend and mentor Bill Belichick, actually allowed himself a visible smile. Like, teeth and everything.
"Getting that onside kick did change the momentum of the game," Saban said.
"Wow, that was a gutsy call," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "High risk, high reward."
The reward came two plays later, when Jake Coker threw his second touchdown bomb of the night to little-used tight end O.J. Howard for a 31-24 lead. After that, Alabama never trailed again on the way to a 45-40 triumph and its fourth national championship in seven years.
"That was a huge, huge play," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Big-play 'Bama had struck again. Time after time Monday night, the Tide threw haymakers that appeared to come out of nowhere. Surprising plays, unlikely heroes. A program known more for methodical body blows, for steadily pounding opponents into submission, struck fast and struck hard.
Thus Swinney learned the maddening, demoralizing truth about playing Nick Saban's Alabama: It is a complete program. There are no obvious holes, no glaring weaknesses, no area of the game in which the Tide can be exploited.
This 'Bama team came into the College Football Playoff championship game leading the nation in scoring defense and built offensively around the Heisman Trophy winner. The defense was shredded, running back Derrick Henry was largely silenced in the second half. 'Bama was backed against the wall by a Clemson team that kept coming, confidence flourishing, belief blooming – for a while in the third quarter the Tigers were one big play away from taking control.
And still Alabama won. Too many weapons, too many ways to beat even the best opponents.
Special teams produced the two biggest plays of the night – the onside kick and a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown from a unit that ranked 109th in the nation in average return yardage. (If anyone was going to run back a kick for six Monday, it figured to be explosive punt returner Cyrus Jones.) The kickoff return came midway through the fourth quarter, which gave Alabama its first two-score lead of the night, and it came courtesy of running back Kenyan Drake.
This was the final college game for Drake, who missed most of 2014 with a fractured and dislocated ankle, who had battled nagging hamstring injuries, and who broke his arm less than two months ago.
"That kickoff return was really something special," Saban said.
So was the crazy, 208-yard receiving night from Howard, the team's fourth-leading receiver on the season and a source of eternal frustration for Alabama fans. He's a big, fast target with a tendency to disappear from the game plan for weeks at a time. For a 10-game stretch of this season, from Sept. 26-Dec. 5, Howard had zero catches of 25 yards or longer and just one longer than 20 yards.
"O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long," Saban said.
In Alabama's two playoff games, he got involved. Howard came up with four catches of 40-plus yards, including two of 50-plus and one of 60-plus against Clemson. The Tigers apparently thought so little of Howard that they flat-out refused to cover him twice, leaving him wide open for long touchdowns.
This is how the Crimson Tide can cripple an opponent. An oft-injured running back, an overlooked tight end ‐ the Saban recruiting machine has stockpiled so many talented guys that they're all just waiting for their chance to do something spectacular.
"Game changers, momentum shifters," center Ryan Kelly said. "A couple times they had the momentum, and we had players talented enough to make those big plays."
The big plays held sway, on a night when the Crimson Tide needed every one of them. It was enough to demoralize the orange-and-purple masses who came here believing they would see Clemson go 15-0 and win its first national title since 1981. It was enough to make a young boy cry.
Long after the game ended, a grade-schooler who appeared to be one of Swinney's relatives (but not his son) stood outside the Clemson locker room with his face pressed against a door. A couple of women tried to console him, but the tears kept flowing. He was the living, sobbing definition of inconsolable.
Not the first person Alabama has reduced to tears during this epic run. And he won't be the last.