Lots of heroics on both sides, but Saban’s call won it
Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Jake Coker threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end O.J. Howard caught five passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Kenyan Drake ran a kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown.
But it wasn’t enough for Alabama. And neither was Alabama’s defense, the best in the land, but often helpless against Clemson’s splendid quarterback Deshaun Watson.
No, Alabama won the national championship in a stirring, 45-40 victory because Nick Saban made perhaps the best coaching call of his remarkable career.
Saban, so smart and so calculating, knew his defense couldn’t contain Watson and he knew his offense, for all its heroics, wasn’t going to outscore Watson without some help.
So he made the call that eventually won the game, a perfectly timed, perfectly executed onside kick that changed the complexion of the game.
“You don’t make that call unless you know it’s going to work,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said on one of the many ESPN viewing choices.
Bielema was right, sort of. You never really know. But Saban had seen the film. He had watched the previous kickoffs in the championship game. He saw that Clemson was leaving a huge section of the field wide open.
And so he made the call, and it worked.
I’ve long felt that the onsides kick is the most under-used weapon in football. It works infrequently in desperate situations when the receiving team knows it’s coming.
But it works as often as not in surprise situations. Saints fans always will remember Sean Payton’s bold call when the Saints won the Super Bowl. Drew Brees was fantastic. The Saint defense did a fine job. But the Saints would not have won the Super Bowl had Payton not made that call for the onsides kick on the second half kickoff.
The same was true of Bama Monday night. The most accomplished coach in college football made a calculated, still gutsy call that allowed his team to win a game it wasn’t going to win otherwise.
He makes $7 million a year. That was a $7 million call.