Surprise kick turns the tide for Alabama

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The most important play in this season's most important game was a 50/50 proposition at best.

Don't believe that? Just ask Alabama special teams coach Bobby Williams, who watched as defensive back Marlon Humphrey flubbed it Saturday inside Arizona State's Verde Dickey Dome when the Crimson Tide practiced the onside kick that turned them into champions.

"He dropped it this week in practice," Williams said with a laugh. "That's why I said 50/50."

And it wasn't the first time Humphrey failed to haul it in a well-placed Adam Griffith chip shot.

"I've dropped it about six or seven times in practice out of the 12 times we've practiced it [this season]," Humphrey said.

But on Monday night, after Griffith connected on a 33-yard field goal to pull Alabama even with Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, he jogged back to the sideline where Williams and head coach Nick Saban began the discussion they had four previous times that night. Each time the Tide were set to kickoff, Saban and Williams debated trying the surprise onside kick, based on the alignment the Tigers showed on film in the weeks leading up to Monday's contest.

When Griffith arrived, assuming he was set to kick the ball deep, Saban approached 5-foot-10, 192-pound junior.

"He asked me if I was ready to do it," Griffith recalled. "I said 'Yes, I'm ready for it.'"

Saban shot back with three words that set in motion the biggest momentum swing of the night: "Let's do it."

From there, it was all about execution. Griffith had to sell his approach as if he were kicking it deep. The kickoff coverage team had to do the same. Humphrey didn't dare tip off the front line of orange-clad players waiting patiently at the 45-yard line.

"I ran out there, tried to act normal," Humphrey said. "I didn't want to give anything away."

The key to the call was the gaping swath of green real estate that lay unoccupied between Clemson safety Jayron Kearse and the Tigers' sideline. Kearse stood directly on the hash mark at the Alabama 46-yard line. That left basically a third of the field open. The fact that it was a consistent occurrence -- both Monday and in weeks prior -- made it a matter of when, not if, Saban would give the kickoff team the green light.

He did. Senior linebacker Dillon Lee looked at Humphrey and said, "Dude, just catch the ball."

Every step that followed was executed to perfection. "Adam kicked it perfect," Williams said.

A little film work went into Humphrey's end of the execution, too. When the freshman from Hoover, Alabama, dropped Griffith's practice attempt on Saturday, Williams noticed during film review that Humphrey didn't properly flip his hands over to catch the ball.

"So when we reviewed the film the next day, we said, 'Hey, this is how you have to do it,'" Williams said.

The result: Humphrey looked like a natural receiver when cradling the pigskin into his hands at the Alabama 49-yard line.

"If you saw how many times I've dropped it in practice, you wouldn't [say that]," he joked.

He quickly scooted out of bounds, not wanting to get hit. The players jumped Griffith, the place-kicker previously best known for his role in one of the most infamous plays in Alabama history, the "Kick Six." Griffith was the one whose 57-yard field goal attempt fell fatefully short into Auburn defensive back Chris Davis' hand and triggered a video clip that will live on in college football lore.

The rest is history. Two plays later, Jake Coker found O.J. Howard for a 51-yard scoring strike and a seven-point lead the Tide wouldn't relinquish in their 45-40 victory.

After his game-changing rainbow on Monday, Griffith had no interest in talking about the past, whether it was the Kick Six or his personal journey from a Polish orphanage at 13 to Tuscaloosa playing major college football.

His words were few but efficient. He wasn't overcome with emotion as he fielded questions from reporters, sitting at his locker patiently waiting for them to stop so he could put a shirt on.

"There's nothing special about me," he said, sheepishly.

Crimson Tide fans everywhere beg to differ.

"It was exciting," he said. "It was just one of those moments. It was perfect execution."

The fascinating part about all this is Saban's role. You won't find fans or pundits pinpointing the five-time national champion as a riverboat gambler, but Williams begs to differ. This is the fourth time he worked with Saban in his career and this particular stint covers the past eight seasons.

"He's made a lot of calls over the years in big games like this," Williams said. "We had the fake against LSU a few years ago. Opened the Auburn game last year with an onside kick, [but] didn't execute it. But this is the biggest game because it really helped turn this game around a little bit."

Always one with extensive attention to detail, Williams said Saban leaves "no stone unturned" when it comes to special teams. And even the former Crimson Tide players on hand -- even stars such as Julio Jones or Mark Ingram -- did time on special teams because of how much Saban values it.

For Williams, who got his coaching start as a running backs coach at Ball State in 1983, to oversee the play that changed the national championship in Alabama's favor, it's blissful.

"Oh, man, it's awesome," he said. "You have no idea."