Alabama’s defense outmatched in title game loss

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Alabama’s defense outmatched in title game loss

James Ogletree, Staff Writer

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Through 14 games, it had responded to everything a grueling season of college football could throw at them: A quarterback controversy, miscommunications, sprained ankles, Vols, Tigers, and Dawgs, and an often-lethal dose of rat poison — nothing could stop the Alabama Crimson Tide.

There Nick Saban stood, 60 minutes from becoming the first college football coach in 121 years to commandeer a team to 15-0 and from standing alone in college football lore as the only coach to win seven national titles.

On Monday night, it all came crashing down in the blink of an eye and the flash of some flowing golden hair.

For the second time in three years a transcendent Clemson quarterback torched the Crimson Tide in the national title game, as true freshman Trevor Lawrence dazzled with brilliant throw after brilliant throw en route to a 44-16 victory, Alabama’s largest loss under Saban.

“It was no surprise to me. I think he’s played extremely well all year long,” Saban said. “Trevor Lawrence is a special talent. I saw him when he was a sophomore, and he was a special player as a sophomore in high school. And he’s playing in a good system, in a good scheme. … He’s got the right stuff as a person, and he’s played phenomenally well for his team this year.”

Lawrence pioneered an otherworldly performance on third down, converting eight of the team’s first 11 attempts — all passes — for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama’s pass rush, which ranked fifth in the FBS with 45 sacks entering the game, did not hit Lawrence once, let alone sack him.

“He’s a good player, it’s just when you get that much time in the pocket you’re going to start to settle down and get comfortable and start being able to dissect the defense,” junior linebacker Terrell Lewis, who watched the game from the sideline, said. “We didn’t really try to pressure them as far as throwing them different looks. It kind of seemed like we were just stagnant in what we were calling… rather than trying to change stuff up.”

The pass rush also suffered without senior linebacker Christian Miller, whose eight sacks ranked second on the team and whose leadership might be even more valuable.

Miller was limited in practice throughout the week after pulling his hamstring against Oklahoma on Dec. 29. He said he was ready to go if his number was called, but he didn’t question the coaches’ decision to keep him on the sideline.

“You work so hard to get there and then you can’t do anything about it,” Miller said. “I was raised that through the good times you give the Lord praise and through the bad times you give him praise. So that’s what I did and I’m just proud as hell of my teammates for fighting their tails off.

“There were just some opportunities that we missed out there and I just don’t think we played our best ball today, and in a game like this you can’t afford too many mistakes.”

The mistakes occurred early and they occurred often. Less than five minutes into the game, Lawrence’s third-down prowess began with a 62-yard gain on third-and-14. On the next play, running back Travis Etienne, who led all non-quarterbacks in Heisman Trophy votes, scored from 17 yards out.

Early in the second quarter the Crimson Tide had a pass interference, a poor angle on a tackle attempt and a 15-yard penalty for a late hit — all in a five-play span. The Tigers capped the drive with another Etienne touchdown and took a lead they would never relinquish, outscoring the Crimson Tide 30-0 the rest of the way.

Clemson receivers consistently got open against an Alabama secondary that was perhaps the team’s biggest question mark all year. Freshman receiver Justyn Ross finished with six catches for 153 yards and Lawrence had 347 yards and three touchdowns through the air.

Saban told ESPN at halftime that Clemson was using concepts that other teams had run successfully against his defense.

“They did do some things that we weren’t prepared for, but you always expect that — a couple bunch passes that Oklahoma ran and some other people that we had to make adjustments to at halftime,” Saban said in his postgame press conference.

By halftime Alabama had allowed 31 points, tying its most in 167 games under Saban. It forced Clemson into third-and-8 on the Tigers’ first drive of the second half, but junior cornerback Saivion Smith slipped and Ross scored a 74-yard touchdown. That put Clemson up 37-16 and essentially buried Alabama’s hopes of cementing its legacy as one of the greatest college football teams of all time. Clemson ran the final 10:02 off the clock with a 14-play, 94-yard drive as orange and purple confetti spilled into the air.

“We was undefeated up until this point. I feel like we did pretty good,” Smith said. “We still accomplished a lot of stuff, but this definitely hurt, though. It definitely hurt.”