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Onside kick was one clever trick by Alabama's Nick Saban

Early in the fourth quarter of a deadlocked Southern dust-up Monday night, Alabama's stoic boss man lost his mind.

He ordered his team to attempt to kick the football to itself.

The game was tied, a college football championship was at stake, and Alabama's curled-lip curmudgeon decided this was the perfect time to play a trick.

An onside kick? Really? Really.

The Alabama popup was perfect, the Clemson kids were perfectly fooled, the ball was recovered by Alabama, the momentum was lost by Clemson, and Alabama stunningly blew open a tie into a 45-40 victory in the College Football Playoff championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Cue the twangy bass. Get those big wheels turning. Change that chorus, if only for a night.

Sweet Home Nick Saban.

Before describing how the Crimson Tide ultimately washed over an inspirationally game group of Clemson Tigers — who fought the inevitable down to the last dozen seconds — can we just get this game's most compelling takeaway first?

Nick Saban is now the best coach in college football history.

He shows no emotion, he tolerates little fun, he seemingly invented the sideline snarl. Yet he has arguably celebrated more big wins than anyone ever, with five national titles, second only to Alabama predecessor Bear Bryant, who won six in an era without true championship games.

Saban is so Teflon that, even after being dumped with Gatorade by his giant linemen Monday night, he looked bone dry. Yet he has controlled his program with such passion, he has now won four undisputed titles in his last seven years at Alabama, a streak that will probably never be matched.

Saban is always so tight that during a postgame interview Monday two of his players massaged his shoulder as if attempting to loosen him up even after a championship. But he was the first coach to win championships at separate schools, and he is on a roll of eight consecutive 10-win seasons at his current school. Pete Carroll owned college football at USC, and even he had only seven consecutive 10-win seasons.

“He's the best I've ever seen, and he's proven that time and time again,” said Alabama quarterback Jake Coker. “Special coach, special person, he does everything the right way.”

In leading his NFL preparatory school to 12 straight wins after an early-season loss to Mississippi, Saban finished this season in a flourish early in the fourth quarter after the Crimson Tide had tied the game on a field goal at 24-all.

There were barely 10 minutes left in the game. Clemson had been unstoppable at times on offense en route to 550 total yards, and couldn't wait to get the ball back.

And then came the kick, a blooper by Alabama kicker Adam Griffith that soared outside of Clemson's tightly packed return line and was caught unimpeded by Marlon Humphrey at midfield.

The players on the Alabama sideline erupted in gleeful hopping and arm-waving. The players on the Clemson sideline quietly stared out at the field as if they had just witnessed a wreck.

Dabo Swinney, the Clemson coach, was wringing his cap in hand and screaming while, in what was surely the most amazing part of the play, Saban just stood there and smiled.

Later, Saban said, “They did what they had to do to win … and I'm smiling.”

Meanwhile, Swinney shook his head and said, “That was a huge, huge play in the game. I felt we had all the momentum. We were confident where we were. It was a huge play.”

Saban admitted afterward that he felt his defense was tiring and he needed to do something to keep it on the sideline. He knew an onside kick was a swing for the fences, but he felt he didn't have a choice.

“When the other team squeezes the formation like that, we call the ‘pop kick,'” Saban said. “I made the decision to do it because the score was [24-24] and we were getting tired on defense, and if we didn't do something to take a chance and change the momentum of the game, we wouldn't have a chance to win.”

The risk immediately paid championship dividends. Two plays later, Coker found a wide-open O.J. Howard deep for a 51-yard touchdown pass to give Alabama the lead.

Then, after Clemson responded with a field goal, the upheaval in this game's narrative became complete when Alabama's Kenyan Drake returned a kick 95 yards for a touchdown that gave the Crimson Tide an 11-point lead and proved to be a dagger.

Yeah, call it one of the most important onside kicks in college football history and football's biggest since the New Orleans Saints used one to launch themselves to a Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts in 2010.

In risking his reputation to give his team a chance, Saban showed his greatness, and Alabama mirrored his resilience.

Folks thought they were done after the loss to Mississippi, and they weren't. History said they were done when they started the final 15 minutes trailing by three points Monday — Clemson had won 51 straight games when entering the fourth quarter with a lead — but they overcame it.

And, yeah, OK, everyone give it up for the guy with the guts to bring Lane Kiffin back to college football. Kiffin was surprisingly hired by Saban two years ago after he flamed out as the USC head coach, and everyone said Saban was crazy, but who looks crazy now?

Kiffin, after all, was at his offensive-coordinating best on Monday night, with Alabama converting half of its third downs, often with misdirection plays or surprise passes.

The offensive player of the game, Howard, a tight end who had 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns? He had not caught a touchdown pass this season, and had but 210 receiving yards in nine Southeastern Conference games. It was yet another surprise from a guy who began the night with a confession.

“I've been waiting 10 years and seven days for this,” Kiffin said to Times reporter Gary Klein.

Kiffin was referring to his involvement in USC's national title game against Texas in 2006, when he was part of the questionable play-calling that led to the Trojans' defeat.

That bit of history was wiped away for Kiffin on a night when history clearly descended on Saban.

“I've never thought too much about all that,” Saban said. “Most of my appreciation lies with the players.”

On this night, finally, that appreciation should go to him. Unless he leaves for the NFL, fans from USC can see this greatness for themselves next fall in Dallas. As if anyone needs reminding, the Trojans will open the season against Nick Saban and Alabama.

Twitter: @billplaschke

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 12, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Kick was one clever trick - A daring Alabama maneuver helps reconfirm Saban's mastery" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe