Alabama Wins Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl
By Trey Iles
New Orleans (January 1, 2018) – That Alabama won its College Football Playoff semifinal game in the Allstate Sugar Bowl thanks to an opportunistic, stingy defense is no great revelation.
The fourth-seeded Crimson Tide scored 14 points off a pair of third quarter turnovers to key its 24-6 victory against top-seeded Clemson in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night before a sellout crowd of 72,360. Bama (12-1) held Clemson (12-2), the defending national champion, to 188 yards of total offense, including just 99 through three quarters when it held the commanding 24-6 lead.
It was the third straight season the teams met in the College Football Playoff. Alabama won in the championship game in 2016 against the Tigers with Clemson taking the title game in 2017 over the Tide. This time was in the semifinals and Bama prevailed with defense.
Alabama will face third-seeded Georgia, the SEC champion, next Monday (Jan. 8) in the National Championship game in Atlanta. It will be the first time two teams from the same conference will battle for the national crown since Bama defeated LSU in the BCS Championship game in 2011 in the Superdome.
It will be the Tide’s third straight trip to the title contest. Like the previous two trips, defense, the cornerstone of Bama coach Nick Saban’s success with the Tide, had a lot to do with it.
But an unlikely hero emerged, Alabama noseguard Da’Ron Payne. He intercepted a pass in Tide territory that set up Bama’s first third-quarter score and, in a move that had everyone – red and orange clad included – surprised, caught a touchdown pass on the ensuing drive.
The interception couldn’t have come at a better time. Clemson, which trailed 10-3 at the half, had cut Alabama’s lead to 10-6 with 12:45 left in the third quarter after a 42-yard field goal by Alex Spence, a score that came off a Bama turnover.
Clemson forced Alabama to a three-and-out on the ensuing series and drove from its 32 to the Tide 35. That’s when the Tide forced its first turnover. Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant dropped to throw on second-and-2 but was hit from behind by Tide linebacker Anfernee Jennings as he threw.
Payne intercepted the errant pass at the Tide 37 and returned it to the Clemson 42. A horse-collar penalty was assessed to Clemson on the play and Alabama set up shop at the Tigers’ 27.
Seven plays later, Payne became a Bama hero when, lined up at the tight end spot, he caught a pass from Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts for a 1-yard touchdown that gave Alabama a 17-6 lead with 5:40 left in the third quarter. It was the senior from Birmingham’s first reception of the season.
“I had been talking to Coach lots about [the team passing to him in a goal-line situation],” Payne said. “He said, ‘Just keep on working, and you might get it.’ And I tried my best to go out and practice and work hard, and they finally gave it to me.”
“When he made the interception, there was no doubt that we were going to throw him the ball on the goal line,” Saban said with a laugh afterwards.
It didn’t take long for Bama to make it 24-6.
On the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing possession, Bryant again dropped to pass from the Clemson 13. But his throw was deflected by Bama cornerback Levi Wallace. Tide middle linebacker Mack Wilson grabbed the tipped pass and brought it back 18 yards for a touchdown and the 24-6 lead with 5:27 left in the third quarter.
Clemson, the ACC Champion, was never able to recover.
“This was a great team effort by our entire defense,” Saban said. “The front guys did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage. The linebackers did a great job of adjusting. The secondary guys did a pretty good job of covering all day. So this was really a great team effort. And the guys played about as hard as any of our defensive teams that I can ever remember in this particular game.”
The Tide led 10-3 at the half and it was a familiar Bama blueprint that gave it the margin. Alabama held Clemson’s offense to 73 yards and four first downs and led in time of possession 18 minutes, 34 seconds to 11:26 for the Tigers. A total of 54 of those yards and three first downs came on Clemson’s only drive that yielded points in the first half, a 44-yard field goal by Spence that cut Bama’s lead to 10-3 with 10:00 left in the second quarter.
Led by running back Damien Harris, who picked up 55 yards on 12 carries, the Tide had 182 yards on offense with 11 first downs in the first half. Hurts was efficient, completing 10 of 13 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown.
Clemson struggled in the first quarter, as it was held to no first downs and minus-7 yards of offense while Alabama jumped to a 10-0 lead. The Tigers didn’t manage their first first down until 14:18 remained in the second quarter.
But as lopsided as the first half stats were, the Tigers only trailed by a touchdown at the half. It felt like it should have been worse.
On its second possession of the game, aided by superior field position as the drive started at the Tide’s 47, Alabama went 47 yards to Clemson 6 when it was forced to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos. That gave the Tide a 3-0 lead with 5:23 left in the first half.
After another three-and-out showing by Clemson’s office, Alabama again started with outstanding field position, taking over at the Tigers’ 46. The Tide drove 46 yards in eight plays for its first touchdown of the game. Hurts passed 13 yards to Calvin Ridley for the score and a 10-0 lead with 12 second remaining in the first quarter.
Clemson cut the lead to 10-3 on the ensuing possession with a 13-play, 54-yard drive that featured a 20-yard scramble for a first down by Bryant and a 19-yard completion by Bryant to wide receiver Deon Cain for another first down. But the drive stalled at the Alabama 27 and the Tigers settled for the field goal.
Alabama drove deep into Clemson territory late in the first half, advancing from its 41 to the Tigers 15. But on fourth-and-9 at the Clemson 20, Pappanastos missed a 38-yard field goal with 17 seconds left as the Tide led 10-3 at the half.
“At the end of the day, when you take a deep breath and you step back a little bit, this will be one of the best teams that we have had,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I mean, this has been a remarkable team. This has been a fun team to coach. I have thoroughly enjoyed being around this group of guys. They have been easy to coach. They have come to work all year. They have had an unbelievable attitude and work ethic and belief. And it’s been fun. They really have — again, this was a bad night. But that doesn’t change how I feel about the type of season.”