There weren’t a whole lot of fireworks at the Sugar Bowl on Monday night. Not many dazzling runs or deep passes.
If Alabama meant to return to the College Football Playoff championship game for a third consecutive season, the Crimson Tide needed to get there the hard way, with grit and defense.
Lots of defense.
Swarming to the ball, forcing turnovers and otherwise making life miserable for top-ranked Clemson, Alabama dominated this much-awaited CFP semifinal 24-6 to advance to the title game against Georgia next week.
“These guys competed with relentless attitude,” coach Nick Saban said of his team. “I mean, they were warriors out there on the field.”
College football had been eager to see this rubber match between newfound rivals who had played for the national championship the last two seasons, winning one title each.
Only once before — with USC and Ohio State in the Rose Bowl during the 1970s — had the same teams met in the postseason three straight years with so much at stake.
So even if the Sugar Bowl was upstaged by a thrilling, double-overtime finish in Pasadena, there was historic work to be done in a matchup that became known as “The Trilogy.”
Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said beforehand: “It’s just going to come down to who wants it more; really, that's the biggest thing, and who is mentally locked in the longest and who is prepared to go the distance.”
Unlike the previous two meetings, this game figured to be low scoring if only because both sides stood among the national leaders in numerous defensive categories. The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide came in as a slight favorite and their stingy defense, best in the nation in yards allowed, let them remain patient.
“I wanted to take the air out of the ball and run the ball and run the clock and shrink the game,” Saban said.
The Crimson Tide pounded away with running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, intent on that physical brand of football, happy with short gains.
Midway through the first quarter, sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts found an opening and scrambled for 19 yards to set up a 24-yard field goal. The next time down the field, Hurts scooted away from Clemson’s vaunted defensive front, flipping a 12-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley and widening the gap to 10-0.
How dominant was Alabama in the early going? Clemson was held to negative-7 yards through 15 minutes of play.
“They were the better team today … no question about it,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Just a tough day all around for us.”
The Tigers eventually found a spark. All season long, quarterback Kelly Bryant had faced questions about his ability to replace the departed Deshaun Watson, a dynamic playmaker who was the heart and soul of the program.
Early in the second quarter, Bryant darted for 20 yards and completed two passes. A field goal before halftime and another early in the third quarter — after Hurts fumbled a handoff — kept the game within striking range at 10-6.
But then Alabama’s defense shifted into another gear.
With Clemson trying to connect on a post route, pass rusher Anfernee Jennings hit Bryant as he threw and nose guard Da’Ron Payne intercepted the wobbly pass. A few plays later, down by the goal line, Alabama brought a host of large bodies into the game and Hurts tossed a one-yard touchdown pass to Payne, who had lined up at full-back.
“Oh, yeah,” the 308-pound senior said. “I dreamed about it last night and it all came true.”
The struggles weren’t over for Bryant, who faced pressure all night long. Moments later, cornerback Levi Wallace tipped his pass and linebacker Mack Wilson made another interception, sprinting 18 yards for a touchdown that all but finished the game.
Wilson had been an important piece of the puzzle on Monday night, returning from a sore foot, bolstering a unit that had lost a number of players — especially linebackers — to injury this season.
By night’s end, Hurts had thrown for a conservative 120 yards and run for 40 more. Damien Harris led all rushers with 77 yards.
Nothing spectacular but good enough. The numbers for Clemson were not.
The Tigers finished with 188 yards in total offense, 260 yards fewer than their season average. On the ground, they managed only 64. Bryant was sacked five times for negative-34 yards.
“We’d put together a drive, then shoot ourselves in the foot,” the quarterback said. “Alabama made the plays we should have made.”
For the Crimson Tide, the victory served as redemption. Or, as Saban said, it “was a little bit personal.”
The loss to Clemson in last season’s championship was still on their minds. Also, their stumble against Auburn in the regular-season finale had kept them out of the Southeastern Conference title game, and many had disagreed with the CFP selection committee’s decision to send them to the playoffs ahead of Big Ten champion Ohio State.
With Clemson now out of the way, Alabama faces another test against third-ranked Georgia, which scored 54 points against No. 2 Oklahoma.
“Their team has done a fabulous job,” Saban said of the Bulldogs. “I’m sure it will be a great football game.”