Alabama’s disastrous fake field goal was one of the biggest plays while the national title game was still in doubt, early in the second half, and Saban’s most scrutinized decision. Everyone watching the game could tell a fake had no chance of succeeding against a Clemson alignment that was expecting a fake.
Still, after the game, Saban blamed the play’s failure on a missed block, taking some pity on himself for having to shoulder the blame anyway.
I was dubious about this explanation, so I looked at the play a few more times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
The man who makes the tackle is defensive tackle Niles Pinckney (44). At the snap of the ball, Pinckney is double-teamed by Alabama’s Alex Leatherford (No. 70) and Chris Owens (79).
As Pinckney scrapes down the line after the snap, two more Tide players have a chance to put a block on him, but don’t. These are the long snapper, Thomas Fletcher, and the kicker, Joseph Bulovas.
(Before moving on, I have to stop here to question the design of any play that uses a kicker as a lead blocker. I understand that trickery and not brute force was the key to successfully executing this play, but this strikes me as an over-thought play design).
In this frame, we can see Leatherford and Owens seem to have Pinckney locked up as the play begins and Fletcher (45) looks for someone to block. It looks like the most logical player for Fletcher to block is the linebacker directly behind Pinckney.
As the play develops, we can see that Leatherford (70) is in no position to (legally) stop Pinckney from pursuing the ball, and Owens starts to lose what has become an individual battle.
Fletcher, the long snapper, could have stopped Pinckney from making the tackle just by stepping over to help Owens. Instead, Fletcher winds up blocking nobody.
I’ve got to assume this is the missed block Saban was talking about, but was the design of the play really to triple-team Clemson’s defensive tackle with two offensive linemen and a long snapper?
That might make sense on fourth-and-1. But remember, Alabama needed six yards on this play, and I just don’t see any way Alabama gains six yards here regardless of who Fletcher or the kicker manage to block.
At the moment Pinckney is making the tackle, there are at least three Clemson players in position to make this play at or near the line of scrimmage, with three others unblocked and ready to clean up any missed tackle.
Other than Pinckney, the closest Clemson player to the ball is 315-pound, three-time All-American tackle Christian Wilkins, and the only obstacle between him and the ball carrier is the kicker.
Fletcher wound up blocking nobody on this play, and he surely deserves some criticism for that. But this play had zero chance of working against this defensive alignment, regardless of how well it was or wasn’t blocked.
The only way this was going to work is if Clemson was fooled. As soon as the teams lined up for this down, it was clear Clemson wasn’t going to be fooled, and the only smart move for Alabama would have been to call a timeout.