TAMPA – Everyone else was surprised. Not Adam Griffith.
The University of Alabama’s kicker expected head coach Nick Saban to call for an onside kick at some point a year ago when the Crimson Tide was playing Clemson in the College Football Playoff Championship in Glendale, Ariz.
The call came with just over 10 1/2 minutes remaining after Griffith had kicked a field goal to tie the game. The kicker popped the ball on a short arc to the right and Marlon Humphrey ran under it like a receiver, catching it to give Alabama possession.
Two plays later, Jake Coker passed to O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown, and Alabama went on to win, 45-40, to claim the national title.
With Alabama playing Clemson on Monday in a national title rematch at Raymond James Stadium here, the call still looms large.
“I didn’t really have a reaction,” the senior kicker from Poland, who grew up in Georgia, said Saturday at Alabama’s media day at Amalie Arena. “I knew we were going to do it at some point.
“After I kicked the field goal to tie the game, I knew in my head that Saban’s going to ask me if I want to try it.
“He did, and I was like, yeah. I’m not going to say no to him. I was excited and ready to do it. We had been practicing it the whole year. I was just waiting for that moment.”
It may have been the most important play in a back-and-forth game. It may also have been the gutsiest call in Saban’s 10-year tenure at Alabama.
“After I saw Marlon get the ball, I was surprised because I didn’t know he was going to do the onside kick,” wideout ArDarius Stewart said. “When he called it, I was just like: You’re going to really call that and we really got that? It caught all of us off guard, but it worked.”
Saban didn’t think of it as a huge risk. UA had noticed that Clemson didn’t line up anyone wide on the kickoff return team. It was something to be exploited.
“We had worked on that and thought by the way they were lined up we had an opportunity to be able to execute it,” Saban said, “and players did a really good job of executing it.
“I felt like the way the game was going at the time and the respect at we had for them and their offense that it was a little bit like a basketball game. When the basketball game comes down to the last two minutes, you’d rather be tied with the ball than tied with the other team having the ball.
“We wanted to try to create something, and we were able to score the next drive, so I think that helped us gain momentum in the game, and I think it helped us finish the game.”
Even so, Saban’s own assistants had reservations.
“I just remember being on the headset,” offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said, “and Coach said, ‘I want to do this,’ and deep down I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, no, c’mon, we just tied the game and we gained some momentum,’ and all of a sudden, boom.
“There’s a reason he’s had the success he’s had. He knows. He knows certain things, and that’s why we trust.”
“We could have done it anytime we wanted. We could have done it opening kick. We could have done it after that kick because they never changed.”
If called upon to do it again, Griffith is willing and ready. But not necessarily anxious.
“Let’s hope it’s not close like that. If it’s a surprise like that, that’s different,” he said.