NEW ORLEANS — If there was a fella who was going to swing a game that was decidedly not the Rose Bowl, not some double-overtime, defense-is-optional thriller, then good as gumbo he should probably weigh more than 300 pounds. That’s what the Sugar Bowl felt like Monday night as the second College Football Playoff semifinal played out. It felt slow. It felt plodding. It felt downright heavy.
So here was Clemson, the defending national champion which had been outplayed much of the evening, on the doorstep. And here was Alabama, the champ two years ago, shutting the door, then jamming a chair under the knob to hold out whatever was on the other side.
The person grabbing the chair: junior defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne. On a day in which nimble little skilled players skittered and scattered all over the Rose Bowl, Payne decided the Sugar Bowl with brute force and surprising dexterity. With Clemson somehow within four points in the third quarter, Payne came up with an interception of Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant, and seven plays later lined up in the backfield and — get this — caught the touchdown pass that broke the game open.
What remained after that were just the details, the little parts that made up the whole of Alabama’s 24-6 victory. The Crimson Tide, something of a controversial pick to be included in the playoff, thus removed any controversy. It will play for the national title for the third straight year — this time against Southeastern Conference compatriot Georgia, coached by former Nick Saban assistant Kirby Smart, the first time in the four-year history of the playoff two teams from the same conference will play for the whole thing.
So there will be story lines for days leading up to next Monday’s national championship game in Atlanta, what with the coaches in each other’s heads and a contrast between a team that scored 54 points in one semifinal with one that gave up just six in the other.
But to get there, Alabama needed Payne and his defensive mates, because midway through the third quarter, they decided the game. With Clemson trailing just 10-6, the Tigers were driving and had the ball at the Alabama 35. But Bryant had been hit and harassed all night, and when he uncorked his next pass, he was drilled by Alabama defensive end Anfernee Jennings. The ball came out just floating. There were Payne’s arms, big and burly, preventing it from hitting the ground.
Now, Payne was just the man of the moment, because the Alabama defense, as a unit, had credit to be spread around. Clemson’s offense averaged just short of 450 yards over the course of the season, and the Tigers’ previous low output came in just their second game, when they gained 281 against Auburn, the only team to beat Alabama this year. Clemson’s total Monday night: 188.
So Payne had help. But when the game turned, the junior collected himself, then got all of his 308 pounds headed upfield. By the time he was dragged down 21 yards later, Alabama had the ball and momentum — and then a wrinkle.
Saban, a master in preparation to begin with, had more than a month to prepare for this one, what with the Tide’s last game a loss to rival Auburn on Nov. 25. So he saved something, and that was Payne lined up in the backfield on second and goal from the 1. Those 308 pounds then shuffled into motion, and bounced off the line into the flat, and then found the little pass from quarterback Jalen Hurts that made it 17-6.
Clemson got the ball back, but only for a blink, because Bryant’s next throw bounced off Alabama cornerback Levi Wallace, then into the waiting arms of linebacker Mack Wilson, who covered the remaining 18 yards. That was, essentially, it, and the Superdome crowd of 72,360 seemed to know it.
This was not the Rose Bowl, what with its 102 points and dizzying pace. This was the contrast. The first two versions of Clemson-Alabama were both played for the national championship, and both played at breakneck speed — Alabama’s 45-40 victory two years ago, then Clemson’s 35-31 redemption a year ago. In the third version, a 24-6 lead felt insurmountable.
There was reason, even before kickoff, to suspect this one would be different. One indication: Alabama played 12 games this season and allowed 138 points. Clemson played 13 games this season and allowed 166 points. Work out those averages, and it’s 11.5 points allowed per game allowed by Alabama, 12.8 points allowed per game by Clemson.
The list of teams that allowed fewer points on average: Zero. None.
So this is what we signed up for, a first quarter in which Clemson used its first three possessions to gain a total of zero (0) yards, then allowed a sack on its final play to end up with minus-7, which could be confused with the high temperature in, say, Minneapolis this time of year. Alabama, by comparison, was something of a machine, getting a short field goal on its second possession and some flat-out improvisation from Hurts on its third.
Having all but conceded that he was going to be swallowed alive by Clemson’s enormous defense, Hurts tucked the ball as he rolled out to pass from his own 12. But as he took one last peek at the end zone, there was receiver Calvin Ridley, wide open. So just before he gave up on the play, Hurts kept it alive, flicking the ball to Ridley for a touchdown that put the Crimson Tide up 10-0.
Clemson, in so many ways, was fortunate to get to the half within 10-3, because the Tigers had been out-rushed, out-passed, out-possessed, outplayed. The Tigers were even more fortunate when the second half began with the rarest of rarities, a gift from Alabama in the form of a botched exchange between Hurts and running back Damien Harris. Clemson’s response to what was just Hurts’s third turnover of the season: a loss of two, a loss of three, a gain of zero. The resulting field goal felt both like a missed opportunity and a gold rush. By that point, Clemson had run 29 offensive plays. More than half – 15 – had lost yards or gone for no gain.
And yet, with Alabama ahead just 10-6, it was a game. Not like the Rose Bowl, which was ostensibly played on a field of the same dimensions and governed by rules identical to this contest. But it was a game all the same.
Until Jennings hit Bryant. Until the ball fell into Payne’s arms. Until he decided this game as it should have been decided, with a big man making a couple of manly plays. Georgia can have its 527 yards of offense. Alabama will show up next week with Payne and its defense. Ask Clemson how that worked out.