Sa­ban’s gam­bles have paid off in ti­tle games

Two big moves helped pro­pel Alabama to re­cent na­tional cham­pi­onships

The Mercury News Weekend - - SPORTS -

Nick Sa­ban showed he’s ca­pa­ble of der­ring-do in Alabama’s past two na­tional cham­pi­onship game wins.

The coach famed for his scowl, his process and metic­u­lous down-to-the-tini­est de­tail na­ture — even eat­ing the same salad daily for lunch and, of course, oat­meal creme pies for break­fast — has turned ti­tle games in the Crim­son Tide’s fa­vor with two gutsy calls.

When think­ing of Sa­ban, a gam­bler or risk taker isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

But when the time is right, the coach has stepped out­side the box. In Jan­uary 2016, Sa­ban’s fourth- quar­ter on­side kick call pro­pelled Alabama on to a 4540 win over Clem­son by not only set­ting up a touch­down drive but keep­ing De­shaun Wat­son & Co. off the field.

Last sea­son, he brought in fresh­man quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa for the sec­ond half to rally the Crim­son Tide from a 13-0 deficit against Ge­or­gia, bench­ing two-year starter Jalen Hurts.

The Tide and Tigers, both 14- 0, meet again Mon­day night in Santa Clara, Cal­i­for­nia, with the na­tional ti­tle on the line.

Don’t be shocked if Sa­ban gam­bles — or at least takes a cal­cu­lated risk — at some point. Any­thing to tilt the game in his fa­vor.

“Well, I think when you’re play­ing against a very good team and you an­tic­i­pate that it’s go­ing to be a re­ally tight game, that you’re al­ways look­ing for some­where or some­place in the game where you can cre­ate an ad­van­tage for your­self and try to put your play­ers in the best position to have a chance to be suc­cess­ful,” Sa­ban said. “You know, I think we do that for ev­ery game, but I think when you play in games like this, some­times those plays can have a huge im­pact be­cause it’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be a pretty close game.”

Three sea­sons ago, Ala- bama had just tied Clem­son at 24 with a field goal when Mar­lon Humphrey col­lected Adam Grif­fith’s on­side kick at mid­field. Two plays later, Jake Coker hit tight end O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touch­down and Alabama took the lead for the du­ra­tion.

Clem­son tight end Mi­lan Richard was on the field with the kick re­turn unit.

“We weren’t ex­pect­ing it,” Richard said. “The way we were lined up, they tried to take ad­van­tage of it and it worked. It’s some­thing we’ll be ready for, some­thing we came back and pre­pared for and we’ll try not to let hap­pen again.”

Tigers left tackle Mitch Hy­att felt like his team had the mo­men­tum be­fore that on­side kick. Wat­son and the Tigers’ of­fense cer­tainly were look­ing all but un­stop­pable.

That made Sa­ban’s tim­ing so per­fect.

“We knew if we just got the ball, we would go and win the game,” Hy­att said. “The on­side kick just re­ally turned that game around.”

The Tigers weren’t the only sur­prised ones. Ala- bama of­fen­sive line­man Jonah Wil­liams was a newly ar­rived fresh­man watch­ing from Bryant Hall back in Tuscaloosa.

“Yeah, it was crazy,” said Wil­liams, now a unan­i­mous All-Amer­i­can. “Me and all the early en­rollees were in Bryant watch­ing it on TV and we were just freak­ing out when it hap­pened, be­cause that was such a mo­men­tum swing in the game. That’s the type of thing that this game takes.”

Maybe switch­ing to Tago­v­ailoa now seems like a no-brainer con­sid­er­ing how poorly Alabama’s of­fense was play­ing against Ge­or­gia and that he wound up be­ing a Heis­man Tro­phy run­nerup some 11 months later. But Hurts had done lit­tle but win since claim­ing the start­ing job — and South­east­ern Con­fer­ence of­fen­sive player of the year hon­ors — as a fresh­man.

Alabama’s of­fense had pro­duced just 94 yards in the first half and trailed Ge­or­gia 13- 0 when Sa­ban made the quar­ter­back switch. Tago­v­ailoa wound up pass­ing for 166 yards and three touch­downs, in­clud­ing the game-win­ner to DeVonta Smith in over­time.

Af­ter­ward, Sa­ban said he didn’t think the Tide could run the ball well enough to over­come the strug­gling pass­ing game and lack of big plays.

“I thought Tua would give us a bet­ter chance and a spark, which he cer­tainly did,” the coach said fol­low­ing the game.

Cal sopho­more hos­pi­tal­ized

Cal cor­ner­back Bryce Turner is in a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia hos­pi­tal af­ter suf­fer­ing a med­i­cal emer­gency ear­lier this week, ac­cord­ing to his fam­ily.

Though of­fer­ing few de­tails on what led to the red­shirt sopho­more’s hos­pi­tal­iza­tion or his cur­rent con­di­tion, Turner’s fam­ily re­leased a state­ment Thurs­day.

“We are grate­ful to those who have cared for Bryce and the doc­tors who con­tinue to closely mon­i­tor him in the hos­pi­tal,” the Turner fam­ily state­ment said. “Please keep Bryce in your thoughts and prayers. We will share up­dated in­for­ma­tion as it be­comes avail­able and we learn more about his con­di­tion, but at this time we ask that our fam­ily’s pri­vacy is re­spected so we can fo­cus on Bryce’s care.”

ESPN re­ported Turner’s med­i­cal episode hap­pened dur­ing a work­out near his Bellflower area home on Sun­day and he was hos­pi­tal­ized later that day. The 20-year-old Turner and the rest of Cal’s play­ers are on a hol­i­day break from school.

The 5-foot-11, 178-pound Turner was a walk-on at Cal last year af­ter play­ing one sea­son at Long Beach City Col­lege.

Army’s Monken is Munger coach of year

Army’s Jeff Monken was se­lected the Ge­orge Munger coach of the year.

Monken earned the award by the Maxwell Football Club af­ter guid­ing the Black Knights to an 11-2 record, the most vic­to­ries in a sea­son in academy his­tory. Army also earned its first na­tional rank­ing in 22 years.

Army capped its break­through cam­paign with a 70-14 vic­tory over Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, which tied a Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion record for points in a bowl game. It was the Black Knights’ ninth straight win.

WIL­FREDO LEE – THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban, left, put in quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa in the sec­ond half of last year’s na­tional cham­pi­onship game as the Crim­son Tide ral­lied to beat Ge­or­gia.

DAVID J. PHILLIP — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 2016, Alabama’s Mar­lon Humphrey, left, re­cov­ered an on­side kick in the fourth quar­ter to set up a touch­down drive as the Crim­son Tide beat the Tigers to win the na­tional ti­tle.

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