With 10:34 to go in the fourth quarter of the national title game, Alabama kicked a field goal to tie Clemson 24-24. The Crimson Tide, though, had to give the ball back to Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson, who’d run around and through the Alabama defense for three-plus quarters. It was Clemson’s, and Watson’s, game to win or lose.
And then, it wasn’t. Rather than put the ball in the hands of the orange men, Alabama and Nick Saban pulled off the most-unexpected onside kick in football history, a perfect pop-up by kicker Adam Griffith.
Though the kick was so fantastic that it actually made Saban smile, the game didn’t end with that Alabama recovery. Somehow, the teams combined for 37 points in the remaining 10 minutes of the fourth quarter: Alabama’s Jake Coker threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open O.J. Howard, the Tide’s Kenyan Drake ran back a kickoff for a touchdown, and Clemson scored two more touchdowns and a field goal of its own. The game wasn’t over until the Tigers’ own, not-so-surprising, last-gasp onside kick sailed out of bounds. Final score: Alabama 45, Clemson 40.
It all started with Griffith’s beautifully arced kick, caught in stride by freshman Marlon Humphrey. The Bama blooper (or maybe the Polish parabola?) unseats the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl dribbler as the most-surprising onside kick in football history.
The Saints’ Sean Payton called his team’s onside kick—code name: “Ambush”—on the first play out of halftime in Super Bowl XLIV, with his team losing 10-6. If it failed (it didn’t), New Orleans would’ve had a whole half to get back in the game. Alabama didn’t have nearly as much wiggle room. If Clemson recovered Griffith’s kick, the Tigers and Watson would’ve had a short field and a great chance to snag a lead with the clock dwindling.
How big of a gamble was Saban’s decision? According to a 2009 post on the site Advanced Football Analytics, surprise onside kicks are successful in the NFL about 60 percent of the time. A 2011 Football Outsiders story indicates that the success rate in college is a little lower—about 42 percent.
While this was the most-shocking onside kick in football history, it wasn’t the gutsiest play call ever in college football. In the 1984 Orange Bowl, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne decided to eschew a potential tie with Miami—there were tie games in college football back then, and a tie would’ve most likely ensured the national championship for the Cornhuskers. Instead, Osborne went for a game-deciding two-point conversion with less than a minute to play. It failed. After Turner Gill’s pass fell incomplete, Nebraska still had one more shot. The Cornhuskers’ onside kick didn’t work, though. Final score: Miami 31, Nebraska 30.
Alabama coach Nick Saban now has five national titles, four with the Crimson Tide. He’d won his three previous title games at Alabama by 16 points (in 2010), 21 points (2012), and 28 points (2013). On Monday night, Clemson and Deshaun Watson made Alabama work for the championship trophy. In the end, Saban was smart enough to realize that the best way to snare this year’s title was to make sure that Watson didn’t have the ball at all.