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Alabama’s Onside Kick: Call Was Good, But…

The onside kick was just one play that led to this moment. (Photo-Larry Burton)

Alabama’s Onside Kick: Call Was Good, But…

By: Larry Burton

There were many “plays of the game” and clearly not one of them had more to do with Alabama’s big win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff Championship Game, but one that certainly would be in contention was the onside kick called by Saban in the fourth quarter with the game tied.

Following the play, you saw Alabama fans celebrating, Dabo Swinney yelling at the refs that it was Clemson’s ball and for a moment, there was some doubt from the refs on what exactly the correct call should be.

Why it went Alabama’s way:

Quite simply, it went Alabama’s way because Nick Saban is a better coach who knew the rules inside and out and saw a tendency on Clemson’s kickoff team he could exploit. Plus he was counting on Clemson’s receiving team not understanding the rules and not being adequately coached to know what to do.

Here is the rule:

Article 3.a. No Team A player (the kicking team) may touch a free-kicked ball until after:

  1. It touches a Team B player (Exception: Rules 6-1-4 and 6-5-1-b):
  2. It breaks the plane of and remains beyond Team B’s (the kicking team) restraining line. (ten yard from the 35 yard line) (Exception: Rule 6-4-1) (A.R. 2-12-5-1) or
  3. It touches any player, the ground, an official, or anything beyond Team B’s restraining line.

Why Dabo was going insane was that his team had not been given an onside kick earlier in the season against South Carolina because his team did basically the same thing. His team (Clemson) did not give South Carolina a chance to catch the ball and the ball was given to South Carolina.

The call went Alabama’s way simply because no Clemson player was deemed in position to have had the opportunity to field the ball. Dabo was arguing that his players were supposed to have been giving “first right” to field the ball. Referees informed him that there was no Clemson player in the area where the ball was recovered and therefore no infringement was made.

Watch this video on Youtube who fortunately someone captured and in slow motion see for yourself that Clemson just screwed up while Alabama made a picture perfect play.

YouTube video

How Clemson could have changed the call:

  1. Had Clemson’s players been better coached, they would have thrown up their hand and signaled a fair catch. Even if they weren’t able to have made the catch, it would have thrown the refs into confusion as to whether the Alabama man should have backed off and given the Clemson player at least a chance to make the catch.
  2. Had the Clemson player broke immediately toward where the ball was kicked, he would have been deemed “in the area” and able to have made a catch himself and the call would have been reversed had an Alabama player interfered with his right to catch it.

Clearly Saban was rolling the dice here. First of all he was rolling the dice the kick would go well, it didn’t in practice. Secondly he was gambling the man on that side of the line wouldn’t react fast enough to realize what was happening and not get near the ball and lastly, that Clemson wasn’t as well coached in every minor detail that Saban does with his team and that they wouldn’t be smart enough to signal for a fair catch.

The announcers of the game and press for the most part, understood all this and knew that Saban had truly counted on much, very much more than just recovering the kick and his players doing everything right. He also had the balls to gamble that Dabo hadn’t done the coaching he had and that his players would blow the opportunity to things right.

It was a MUCH bigger gamble that at first thought.

Saban could have tried for a big bounce and a recovery, because according to the rules, once the ball touches the ground, you don’t have to give the receiving team the opportunity to catch it. But bounces don’t always go the way you want them to.

Having a Polish soccer player as your kicker with the ability to pooch kick a ball like passing a soccer ball to a teammate seemed to have the best odds. But only if you were sure that the Clemson players weren’t coached on what to do and would continue to line up in a way that gave the kicking team a spot the size of a tennis court to kick it into.

Now you know why Saban has five national championships and Dabo is still looking for number one. But given the game’s closeness and what that call meant to the game, it will be a mistake Dabo won’t make again. But it’s a lesson learned a bit late as another trophy takes it’s spot in the case in Tuscaloosa.

Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter

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