NEW ORLEANS — Fairly or not, the way in which Alabama’s season would be judged this season was likely going to be decided in how the offense performed against a stout Clemson defense. It was a defense that ranked second nationally in total defense measured by yards per play coming into the game.
Never mind the fact the season rode largely on what offense coordinator Brian Daboll’s unit did, but the first-year UA assistant coach also had a lot of at stake reputationally Monday night in the Sugar Bowl.
The context of a season full of offensive highlights gets lost when all fans remember about a team is the performance they saw from the offense against Auburn 37 days ago.
It wasn’t a masterpiece, but Daboll dialed up a game plan in the semifinal that established Alabama’s toughness to get the team into the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
“The game plan was great,” junior left guard Ross Pierschbacher said. “We know they were more of a side-to-side defense. Our thinking was, if they were going to go sideways, we wanted them going backwards. We wanted to wear them out up front and go tempo on them.”
And it started from the first offensive possession, when Damien Harris went over left guard for carries of 5 and 3 yards. Again, not high flying, but it established physicality. Harris finished with 77 yards and a 4.1-yards-per-carry average.
As for the passing game, it was meant to be efficient, not flashy.
Daboll showed creativity — a play-action bootleg pass to jumbo defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, who plays a fullback in certain goal-line packages.
There was a little trickery too — it didn’t work, but his flea-flicker call to Calvin Ridley could have been a big play has the pass not been underthrown. There were smart passes called — with a quarterback who struggles to consistently complete the intermediate and deep throws, Daboll called for Jalen Hurts to throw swing passes to running backs and quick slants and screens to wide receivers.
Hurts completed 16 of 24 passes for 120 yard and two touchdowns.
And of course he fed the running backs the ball —Harris had more carries in the first quarter Monday night than he did in the entirety of the Auburn game. Against Auburn, UA running backs totaled 18 rushes. Against Clemson that total was 31.
Good game plan
All in all, Daboll called an offensive game plan for the players with which he had to work. In other words, Daboll called a game that gave Hurts the best chance to be successful.
And he ran the ball.
“He put us in the best position to be successful all night,” Harris said. “We really feel like we dominated from start to finish in the game.”
And, for the most part, he called a game that kept Alabama on schedule, allowing it to convert 8 of 17 third downs.
“Sometimes it was only a 2- or 3-yard run, but we kind of knew that,” running backs coach Burton Burns said. “I thought we kind of stayed out of some third and longs today.”