Special teams help turn tide in Alabama’s national title win
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Alabama Crimson Tide came into Monday Night’s College Football Playoff Championship Game with a reputation for a stifling defense.
After all, the Tide shut out the Michigan State Spartans 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Monday, Alabama’s offense exploded for 473 yards.
Yet, when the smoke cleared, it was the Tide’s special teams that fueled their fourth national championship in seven years with a 45-40 victory over the Clemson Tigers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
After Alabama’s Adam Griffith tied the score at 24-24 with a 33-yard field goal with 10:34 left in the fourth quarter, head coach Nick Saban rolled the dice. He called for a pooch kick that was executed perfectly by Griffith and recovered by Marlon Humphrey at midfield.
Two plays later, quarterback Jake Coker found O.J. Howard on a 51-yard touchdown throw that gave Alabama a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“The way we line up on kickoffs, we have a squeeze formation and we try to corner kick the ball,” Saban said. “When a team squeezes the formation like that, we call it ‘pop kick.’ I thought we had it in the game any time we wanted to do it.
“I made the decision to do it because the score was (tied) and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a good job of getting them stopped. And I felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance on changing the momentum of the game, we wouldn’t have chance to win.”
That 10-point stretch was part of a 24-point fourth quarter for the Crimson Tide.
But the special teams wasn’t done. Clemson got points on its next drive. A 6-play, 61-yard march culminated in a 31-yard field goal from Greg Huegel made the score 31-27 in favor of Alabama.
Kenyan Drake took the ensuing kickoff down the left sideline 95 yards for another special teams score — Alabama’s sixth of the season, which tied for the most among FBS teams. However it was their first kickoff return for a score all season long.
Saban was happy to see the oft-injured Drake end his career on a high note.
“Kenyan’s been through a lot,” Saban said. “We thought he would have a tremendous, breakout season. When the season started, I didn’t know who would be more productive, Derrick Henry or Kenyan Drake. I thought they both would be.”
Drake suffered a broken leg in 2014, and then broke his arm in the Mississippi State game and would miss the next two-and-a-half games.
“I always like to see seniors who have been great contributors in the program do something special that’s going to be a great memory to them and that kickoff return was something special,” Saban said.
Where was O.J. all season?Alabama tight end O.J. Howard was named the game’s Outstanding Offensive Player after grabbing five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad for a player who had only 33 catches for 394 yards all season, and hadn’t scored a touchdown since his freshman campaign in 2013.
Saban criticized himself for not carving out a bigger role for the junior tight end in 2015.
“O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long,” he said. “Sometimes he was open and we didn’t get him the ball. But I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he’s capable of.
“I would say it’s bad coaching on my part that he didn’t have the opportunity to do that all year long.”
Howard’s first touchdown, a 53-yard strike from Coker that gave the Tide a 21-14 lead early in the third quarter, broke a 22-game touchdown drought.
“Initially, it felt like a dream,” Howard said. “When I got to the sideline, I tried to tell everyone to wake me up because I thought it wasn’t real. But man, it’s just a great feeling to get into the end zone again.”