For Play of the Week we are going to look at the onside kick that changed the game. This is going to hurt. You can brace yourself now. Take a deep breath.
There was not a single thing on earth Kearse could have done. He was not misaligned. Alabama had been squeezing their kickoff unit to the side all night. Look how much space there is between the widest man to the right and the sideline.
In order to block his man Kearse had to align where he did. The only thing that could burn him would be if the kicker could drop the ball on a dime. Which, of course, Adam Griffith did. Because Nick Saban has apparently been practicing this play since August, and just kept it in his back pocket in case he needed it. Nick Saban thinks of literally everything.
Now Alabama does take some risks by aligning like it does here. If a returner is able to beat the contain player to the right side of the field there is no one left to make a game saving touchdown. As a result Griffith had been kicking the ball to the left and as deep as possible for the majority of the night. But by doing so all night Alabama managed to freeze Kearse. Look at that moment of hesitation. Kearse did not expect that call because no one on earth expected that call. Nick Saban just is not the coach you look to call a surprise onside kick. The idea would have been heresy. Meanwhile Marlon Humphrey, one of precious few people on earth who understood what the hell was happening, was sprinting towards a perfectly placed ball.
There is a theoretical approach to play calling known as "the constraint theory." In essence, a play, if it works, forces the defense to react in a way that sets up the counter, which serves to set up another counter and so on. Alabama has done something exceptionally rare and actually managed to call a series based special teams play. Each and every prior kickoff Alabama had run had been setting up this counter punch, and Clemson was simply not in a position to stop this play. Nick Saban was quoted after the game as saying "I thought we had that in the game any time we wanted."
Pulaski Academy in Arkansas never punts, you’ve likely heard of their coach because of that. His teams also almost always onside kicks after touchdowns. Coach Kelley’s reasoning, backed by math, is that the team with the most turnovers almost always wins the game. An onside kick, if completed successfully, is functionally a turnover.
Nick Saban chose a perfect moment to spring out what he believed was going to be a free turnover. Alabama was tied 24-24, having just kicked a field goal after a long drive. Clemson has not been noted for depth this year. As a result Alabama was predicted to have a large advantage in the fourth quarter, where Clemson, especially on defense, has played pretty poorly all year. Nick Saban saw a chance to get the ball back against a tired defense and break the game just far enough open, and that is what happened. From the following touchdown on out, Clemson was chasing and did not have the time or the energy to catch up.
The Tigers should hang their heads high though. Clemson battled Alabama so closely that Nick Saban had to call a surprise onside kick to win the game. There aren’t a lot of teams in recent history that have made Saban sweat, and even fewer that have made him sweat so much he broke character. On Monday night Clemson lost, but it took every single thing Alabama had to earn the victory.