NEW ORLEANS – After a month of mulling over ugliness, things were back to normal for Alabama at the Superdome on Monday night.
Still ugly, but in a beautiful way.
The Crimson Tide earned no style points in bludgeoning Clemson in the College Football Playoff. It did earn a trip to the championship game, the sixth in nine years for a Nick Saban team. The defense, restored to relative health, looked as dominant as Alabama’s championship units of the recent past, perhaps a bit shy of 2011, if you have to quibble. The offense didn’t roll up any more yards than were needed, to say the least, and didn’t close the deal in quite the way Saban wanted. This time, it didn’t matter.
It was ugly — except the outcome. That’s how wars are won, even if beauty pageants aren’t.
Alabama has won this way before, many times, some on this very field in New Orleans. This was the site of the goal-line stand in 1978 against Penn State, the blitzing of Gino Torretta and Miami in 1992, the smothering of LSU in 2011. Defensively, this game may not have exceeded those, but it deserves to stand alongside them.
Think of it this way: The most memorable offensive play of the night was made by a defensive player, Da’Ron Payne. Or, if you prefer, think of it this way: Alabama kept Clemson’s pulse threadily beating at halftime because a sack and a penalty pushed a field goal attempt 10 yards farther away and a kicker (who was, to be fair, still within his range) doinked it off the upright, leaving the margin at one score instead of what would have been an insurmountable two scores.
Then, the offense opened the second half by doing exactly what it didn’t need to do — losing a fumble to put Clemson in far better field position than its offense ever could have achieved through its own efforts. Instead of letting that be a turning point, the Alabama defense pushed Clemson back five yards farther away and, even though the Tigers made a field goal, it was obvious that they weren’t going to be able to generate any sort of threat. They tried, turned the ball over twice, and were finished by the end of the third quarter.
For the first time in the trilogy of games against Clemson, the Tigers were overmatched. It is probably unfair to blame it all on the absence of DeShaun Watson, but the fact is that while the Tigers still looked like a Ferrari on the outside, they seemed to be powered by a lawnmower engine. The Tigers are young and will be back, but were a different animal this time.
“We had opportunities, but had awful field position and didn’t flip the field when we had to,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “But at the end of the day, championship football is a matter of few plays, you’ve got to make those plays, and we didn’t do that.
“We did it last year, but we didn’t do it this year. We’ll be back and so will they.”
The celebration of this win will be brief. Whether the Alabama defense can carry the entire burden one more time, in what will be a virtual road game, against a Georgia team that can run the ball far more effectively than Clemson could, is problematic. But Alabama will approach the game with what Saban referred to in the postgame as “the warrior mentality.” It might be ugly. The question may be, can Alabama make it ugly enough?
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.