Alabama often wins championships with a ferocious defense. They’ve overpowered some opponents with a physical offense.
The latest Crimson Tide trophy for the case will gleam for some of the less heralded players, those on the kickoff coverage and return teams.
Alabama’s 45-40 triumph over Clemson on Monday in the College Football Playoff national title game turned on an onside kick and was sealed by a kickoff return for a touchdown.
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Against a Clemson team and quarterback Deshaun Watson that brought an incredible effort, Alabama needed any advantage it could find.
The first came after the Crimson Tide had caught Clemson 24-24 early in the fourth quarter. The Tide doesn’t stretch across the entire field when it lines up for kickoff coverage, leaving space open on the right side. The Tigers align themselves in the same bunch up front.
That’s why Marlon Humphrey, covering for the Tide on the outside, easily beat Clemson to the ball bounced by kickoff man Adam Griffith.
The onside kick stunned the Tigers and energized the Crimson Tide, who two plays later found the end zone on a 51-yard strike from Jake Coker to tight end O.J. Howard, on his way to a monster game with 208 receiving yards.
“We were tired on defense, we weren’t doing a great job getting them stopped,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. “If we didn’t do something to change the momentum of the game, we wouldn’t have a chance to win.”
The Tide didn’t trail after that but the Tigers weren’t beaten. They came back with a field goal, and with Watson an unstoppable force most of the night, Clemson wasn’t done. One more stop of the Tide — the Tigers had sacked Coker five times and made Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry earn his 158 yards on 36 carries — and Clemson would be back in business.
But Kenyan Drake returned the kickoff 95 yards, hitting the pylon with the ball on a dive for a touchdown. For the first time in the game, a team had a two-score lead, and the breathing room belonged to Alabama at 38-27.
“Great play by them,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said of the onside kick. “He put it in a great spot, and their kid did a great job of going and getting it. It was a huge play. But then we followed it up with a bust for a touchdown. So it was combination of mistakes.”
The game had switched from a see-saw battle to a catch-up exercise for the Tigers, and once Alabama and Saban get close to a national championship they know how to finish the deal.
Of the Crimson Tide’s four championships won in the BCS/CFP era, this was easily the most difficult. Saban’s teams handled Texas for the 2009 championship, LSU for 2011 and Notre Dame for 2012.
Clemson was an entirely different task, Alabama’s biggest challenge.
Watson is a difference-maker. Monday, he passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 73 more. Saban was so incensed about the Tide losing contain on Watson on a 16-yard run in the third quarter he ripped off his headset.
Efforts like Watson’s, mindful of the Vince Young-authored Texas championship for 2005, are often rewarded with a confetti shower on the podium for the trophy presentation.
But not on Monday, not against the program that has now won more national titles than not over the past seven years.
Alabama and Saban are college football’s gold standard. Counting his one national championship won at LSU, Saban now owns five titles. Only one coach in the game’s history has won more, and he wore a houndstooth hat while pacing the Alabama sidelines.
Bear Bryant was a six-time national champion coach, and his occurred from 1961-1979. Bryant had been a winning coach at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M before taking over in Tuscaloosa. Saban had been an NFL assistant and less established as a college coach when he took over at Michigan State in 1995.
In his first game there, Saban lost to Nebraska 50-10, and afterwards Cornhuskers Coach Tom Osborne said something that encouraged the young coach.
“I thought I may never win a game as a college coach,” Saban said. “I ran across the field to shake Tom Osborne’s hand, and he said ‘You’re not as bad as you think.’”
Osborne, who watched Monday’s game from a luxury suite as a member of the CFP Playoff committee, was right. For one thing, that Nebraska team was one of the most dominant in the game’s history, winning the second of three national titles in four years.
Alabama and Saban are now on a similar path of sustained excellence and the Bear is in sight.