After what many preseason pundits thought would be a rebuilding year for Clemson, the Tigers returned to the College Football playoff and met Alabama for the third consecutive year, this time in the semifinal in the Sugar Bowl. The last two meetings were close, back and forth games and many expected today’s game to be the same. Whereas the Oklahoma-Georgia game was expected to be a high-scoring affair (and was, with the Bulldogs taking the win 54-48), this game was expected to be a defensive battle.
Clemson received the opening kickoff and Travis Etienne returned it to the 16. Alabama seemed to have finally figured out that Hunter Renfrow is the Tiger go-to on 3rd down and forced the punt, which wasn’t very good. The Tide took over at their 44 but the Tiger defense forced a 3-and out.
Clemson started at their 16 again and couldn’t do much against the Tide defense, resulting in another 3-and-out. Alabama got good field position and started their drive with a long run by Jalen Hurts. Tough running by the Tide backs moved the ball deep into Tiger territory. A neutral zone infraction by Austin Bryant put the Tide at the 3 with 1st and goal. Alabama then committed an illegal formation penalty to move them back to the 8. The Tiger defense then came alive and pushed the Tide back but Hurts scrambled and got to a 3rd and goal at the 5. The Tiger defense held and the Tide had to settle for a FG to take the lead 3-0.
Clemson took over at the 24 and started with a 3-yard loss when Kelly Bryant didn’t make the best read on an option and was chased down from behind. Deon Cain had the chance to convert a 3rd and 16 but dropped the ball. A good punt return gave the Tide the ball at the Clemson 46. Alabama moved down into the red zone when Bo Scarbrough caught a pass in the flat. Hurts scrambled on 2nd down and found Calvin Ridley free in the end zone to make the score 10-0 Tide. If you’re a defense chasing a scrambling Hurts, you’d better know where the Tide’s #3 is. Clemson didn’t, and they paid for it.
Clemson took over at their 19 and started with a sack of Bryant. On 3rd down, Bryant scrambled and got a first down, assisted by a nice block by Etienne. Cain had a 19-yard catch to move the Tigers into Tide territory. For the first time in the game, the Tiger offense seemed to be firing on all cylinders. On 3rd and 9, the Tide blitzed and Bryant couldn’t get off the throw he needed to Tee Higgins who couldn’t pull the underthrown ball in. The Tigers settled for an Alex Spence FG to cut the Tide lead to 10-3. Good kickoff coverage by the Tigers gave Alabama the ball at their 15. A flea flicker pass by the Tide almost worked, but Van Smith was able to recover in time to break it up. The Tiger defense held, and forced the punt.
With 5:52 left in the half, Clemson took over at their 10. The Tigers went up-tempo and moved out to the 30 but the Tide pass rush kept the Tigers from converting a 3rd down. The punt put Alabama at their 41 with just over 4 minutes left in the half. Alabama’s run game was in full force as they moved down the field into Clemson territory. The Tiger defense held though, and Alabama attempted a FG but it hit the left upright and the score remained 10-3 at the end of the 1st half.
The Tide started with the ball in the second half, but they fumbled a handoff and Kendall Joseph recovered it at the Tide 20. On first down, Bryant had another poor read and was tackled in the backfield. Tavien Feaster was tackled for a loss on a flare pass on 2nd down. Bryant was sacked on 3rd down and the Tigers settle for a FG. That was an opportunity that the Clemson offense squandered badly. Squandering opportunities is not the way to beat Alabama. The Tiger defense responded with a good series and forced a 3-and-out.
The Tigers took over at their 31. On first down, Cain caught an 11-yard back shoulder throw. On 3rd down, Bryant scrambled and got the 1st down. But on the next 2nd down, the ball was knocked loose as Bryant was throwing and Alabama intercepted it at the line of scrimmage. A horse collar tackle on the return put the Tide well into Clemson territory. The Tide converted a 4th down and then got down to the Tiger 1 yard line. On 2nd and goal, Hurts hit Da'Ron Payne (yes, the 300+ lb DT) for the TD. The Tide clearly committed a pick on the play but it wasn’t called. The Tide was up 17-6. with 5:40 left in the 3rd quarter.
On the next Tiger play, the Tide deflected a pass and intercepted it for a pick six. The Tigers were down 24-6. On the ensuing possession, the Tigers got a 1st down but then ended up in a 3rd and long after a sack. The Tiger offensive line, supposedly a strength for the team, was getting whipped left, right and up the middle. Clemson was in the position that they simply could not afford to be in: down three scores without any real passing attack, or any offense at all really. The Tiger defense did their job and forced the Tide to punt. The punt return team didn’t go after the punter, nor did they seem to be trying to keep the Tide defenders occupied, and Clemson was pinned deep in its own territory.
Clemson moved out to the 25 but then the drive stalled. They were clearly out of their element trying to move the ball down the field passing. The thought going through my mind, and many others I’m sure, was why not bring in one of the other QBs and see if they could get a passing game going? There didn’t seem to be much to lose at this point. Bryant wasn’t solely to blame for the lack of production. The offensive line was not giving him much of a pocket to work in, but the game situation demanded a change. The Tiger defense forced the Tide to punt and the Tigers came out with Bryant at QB. They did what they had done most of the night: nothing.
The Tiger defense once again did their job and forced Alabama to punt. The Tigers came out with a good drive but it was too little, too late. The Tigers couldn’t convert a 4th and goal and Alabama ran the clock out.
So, a very disappointing night for the Tigers. They were outplayed and out-coached. The defense played very well all year and I expect them to be dominant again next year. To compete for another national title, the Tigers will have to return to their explosive ways on the offensive side of the ball. Running the ball is important, and Clemson looks to be in good shape there, but they will need to have a passing game that keeps defenses honest. This year they did not, and the Alabama defense kept them off balance all night. Let’s hear your thoughts on tonight’s game and next year in the comments below.