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Initial Impressions: Alabama finds redemption over Clemson, advances to the CFP Championship

Final score: 24-6 with a healthy dose of Heisman snub Da’Ron Payne

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Sugar Bowl - CFP Semifinal - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So, how about that?

In the midst of a myriad of incessant attacks coming from every media outlet one could shake a fist at, the Alabama Crimson Tide used the biggest stage on New Year’s Day to fulfill a year-long vendetta (and really a two-year vendetta for the defense) against Clemson in such a resounding and soul-crushing fashion that there is no longer any doubt in who the king of college football really is. The ship has been righted. The world is back on it’s axis.

2017 is no longer. It’s 2018 now, and Alabama came to play.

In the last two years, Clemson has gained over 1000 yards and nearly 100 points on the Alabama defense in only two games. Time after time after time after time we’ve heard how Alabama’s usually dominant defense just can’t stand up to the test in big games against Clemson. 2017 rolls around, and, despite a strong start against Florida State, the linebackers suffer about 71 different injuries over the course of the season, and things just never looked quite right.

The defense was generally solid all year, sure, but there was rarely the attacking mentality we’ve become so accustomed to. After the loss to Auburn, most had written the defense off as having lost its edge.

Instead, 2018 showed the world that not only was the edge back and as sharp and dangerous as a katana-wielding ninja, but it was back with two years of pent up aggression and on a crash course to totally obliterate every orange tiger in a 50-mile radius. The opening kick-off displayed every bit of that ferocity as Trevon Diggs absolutely annihilated Clemson running back Travis Etienne on the 16 yard line— a hit that became a symbolic microcosm of the rest of the game.

The Alabama defense quickly forced a three and out, and the Tide offense received its opening possession at midfield. Two successful runs up the middle in a row from my hero Damien Harris had Alabama in 3rd and short. Jalen Hurts saw a blitz pre-snap and checked to a quick slant from the vacated spot to the reliable 5th-year senior Cam Sims, who reliably dropped the ball after it hit his gut, and JK Scott was allowed to show off his precision-strike ability in the punting game, pinning Clemson back on their own 16 again.

Another three-and-out had Alabama with field position on the 47 again. Now, I’ve been calling all season for Coach Daboll to break out some triple option with such an exceptional group of running backs and dangerous runner at QB. And on the first play, of Alabama’s second drive, he did just that.

The first option to Harris up the middle. Jalen Hurts keeps it and has Josh Jacobs as his pitch man. Hurts fakes the toss and spins the Clemson defender in a circle as he scampers for the most glorious 19-yard gain I think I’ve ever witnessed. It brought a tear to my eye. After that, Harris gashed the Clemson defense for a few more chunk gains and Jalen Hurts got a redo on his earlier check to a slant route, but this time threw it to the freshman, Henry Ruggs, who hung on for 10 yards.

With the Clemson defense reeling, coach Daboll swapped to running back Bo Scarbrough on a couple of stretch plays that went backwards for a combined 13 yards, and Alabama ended up settling for an easy field goal to go up 3-0.

Clemson went backwards the next few plays as the Alabama defensive line continued their impression of a hoard of angry bears, and then receiver Deon Cane dropped what would have been an easy first down the put the Tigers in their third 3-and-out. A 14 yard return from Trevon Diggs had Alabama with starting field position at the 46 yet again. Daboll had one of his best mixes of play calling of the season with some runs up the middle from Harris and a few quick passes to Irv Smith (!) and Scarbrough. Then, as the light of the heavens shined down into New Orleans, Jalen Hurts avoided a rusher who got free, kept his eyes up field, and tossed a 12 yard strike to Calvin Ridley streaking to the right side of the endzone.

10-0, good guys.

Clemson, to their credit, responded with a gritty 13-play drive that had QB Kelly Bryant fighting his way through tackles for first downs when they needed them most, despite Alabama defenders swarming like a nest of disturbed hornets. The human mountain Raekwon Davis took on two Clemson linemen as Terrell Lewis slipped around behind him for an unabated shot at Kelly Bryant, until the Clemson center tackled Lewis from behind (and for the third year in a row, they STILL can’t be called for a holding), and Bryant scampered for a 20 yard scramble. Lewis, ever the try-hard, got off the ground and chased him down for the tackle anyway.

(Former) Reserve safety Deionte Thompson broke on a curl route and was inches from picking it off for what likely would have been a pick six, but Cane managed to snag it just out of his grasp and pick up 19 yards. It looked all the world like Clemson was beginning to find a rhythm on offense, but Thompson came in on a safety blitz like a tomahawk missile juiced up on Red Bull, and hit Bryant right in the gut with so much unchecked force that his soul was momentarily cleaved from his flesh. To his credit, Bryant stood tall and delivered a nearly-accurate strike to Tee Higgins in the end zone, but everyone’s favorite Tony Brown made one of the best plays of his career by breaking up the pass with the side of his helmet. Way to use your head, Tony!!

Clemson settled for a field goal, and Alabama got the ball back with reset field position for the first time this game. Freshman running back Najee Harris came out of the mysterious depths of nowhere to take a swing pass for 22 yards, breaking a few tackles along the way, and then Damien Harris took a hand-off up the middle, only to toss it back to the anxious hands of a waiting Jalen Hurts. The flea-flicker is nothing short of absolutely perfect, as the safety bites and Calvin Ridley is streaking down the field with the nearest defensive back 5 yards behind him. Hurts uncorks a deep bomb that would put a fork right into the heart of wounded Tiger defense. Except it wasn’t quite deep. More like right on that slanty area of the swimming pool between the deep and the shallow end. In any case, Ridley had to stop and then try to jump over the trailing defender to make the catch, and the ball ended up falling harmlessly to the ground.

Scott pinned Clemson back on their 10 yard line again, and after one first down, the Tigers punted it back, giving Alabama 4 minutes to get 59 yards and score to close out the half.

It started out promising. Damien Harris got 4 carries in a row for 18 yards. Then Hurts released a deep bomb to Robert Foster off of play-action, who drew a pass interference from a desperate defensive back. However, Jonah Williams blocked his man too well, and the referees called ineligible lineman downfield as Williams walked his man backwards almost 10 yards, and the penalties offset. Alabama got a few more yards, but ultimately stalled out and were forced to try a 33-yard field goal.

It got blocked, but was saved by the fact that Alabama also got a delay of game penalty. With his mulligan kick, Andy Pappanastos clanked the 38-yarder off the upright, and Clemson got to go into halftime with all the momentum.

Fortunately, Alabama got the ball back to start the half. However, Hurts and Harris collaboratively decided that it was unfair for Clemson to not have the ball, and neither one actually held onto the ball on a read-option on the opening play of the second half. But the Alabama defense ate their wheaties this morning, and resolved to knock Clemson back 5 yards and force the field goal after what could have been a disastrous fumble.

Alabama went three and out again, and suddenly Clemson was gashing the Tide defense with gains of 11,8,6, and 8. Then Anfernee Jennings came around the right end to hit Bryant’s arm as he threw, and the ball fluttered lazily into the welcoming embrace of the loving giant bear, Da’Ron Payne. Payne took the ball 21 yards, nimbly sidestepping a man with all the grace of a gargantuan ballerina, then drew a horsecollar penalty as the Clemson players struggled to drag him to the ground.

The Tide offense plodded their way to a 4th and 1, and Damien Harris momentarily fulfilled what I’m sure was once a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut and going airborne over the entire pile for a 1st down.

Calvin Ridley subsequently destroyed some poor chap’s ankles at the line of scrimmage on his route for a 13 yard gain to the 1 yard line, and Alabama then trotted out with everyone’s favorite, the Jumbo Package. Defensive linemen Da’Ron Payne and Quinnen Williams lined up in the backfield as everyone in the nation geared up for a mighty display of old-school power football. Instead, Hurts faked the hand off and rolled to his right, tossing a quick strike to the wide-open Calv.... DA’RON PAYNE!!

The big man deftly tapped both his feet in bounds to make sure the NFL scouts in attendance knew he’s not only a 1st round talent on the defensive line, but as a wide receiver as well.

On the very next play from scrimmage, Kelly Bryant tried to pick on former walk-on defensive back Levi Wallace on a slant route, but Wallace was a step ahead of him and tipped the ball up into the air, where a hungry Mack Wilson snagged it greedily and raced to the corner of the endzone for a pick-6, and suddenly Alabama was up 24-6 with 5 minutes to go in the third quarter.

From there, the Alabama offense went into ultra-conservative cruise control while the defense feasted and harassed Bryant on every single play for the rest of the game. The Tigers did manage to put together a dink-and-dunk 18-play, 75 yard drive right at the end of the 4th quarter, but it only managed to take 6 minutes off the clock and result in 0 points anyway, so, whatever. Enjoy your slight bit of stat-padding at the end.

As most everyone expected, this was a defensive slug fest with neither offense being able to establish any consistency. But while Alabama was slowly struggling along to advance the field position in their favor, the Clemson offense was busy getting popped in the mouth by a bevy of angry Tide defenders on nearly every play. It was one of the most beautiful single-game displays of defensive dominance I’ve ever seen, and you can bet I’ll be rewatching this one.

Ultimately, the Tigers ended up with 188 yards on 70 plays, but 75 of those yards came on the final, useless drive.

The Alabama defensive line was absolutely dominant, led by sophomore Raekwon Davis, who had 5 tackles, 2 for loss, and a sack. D’Shawn Hand and Isaiah Buggs both got sacks, and Da’Ron Payne got defensive MVP for his Heisman worthy performance.

The linebackers, who were mostly healthy for the first time this year, were equally dominant. In what amounted to his first fully healthy game this season, 6’5” monster Terrell Lewis was a constant disruption in the passing game, though his stats don’t show it, and nearly picked off a screen pass with his pterodactyl-like wingspan. His mate Anfernee Jennings had the best game of his career with 3 takles for loss, a sack, and the hit that led to Payne’s interception.

Rashaan Evans led the team with 9 tackles, and added a sack of his own, while Mack Wilson had 6 tackles and a pick-6, and nearly had another pick had he not dropped the ball when it hit him in the chest.

In the secondary, Anthony Averett was totally invisible all game, a job well done for the most underrated lockdown corner ever. Meanwhile, Levi Wallace broke up a deep sideline ball and the slant that led to Wilson’s pick six, which more than made up for a couple of other catches he gave up. Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to show why he won all the shiny trophies this season, as he totally shut down Hunter Renfrow while simultaneously disrupting nearly every play that Clemson tried to set up on the perimeter.

And Deionte Thompson. Man. I can’t express enough just how impressed I was with his play in his first game as a starter. He’s explosive, rangy, and decisive. He comes in like a heat-seeking missile, whether he’s going for a pass break-up or a safety blitz, and I look forward to him being a stalwart and playmaker in the secondary next year.

The Tide offense was another story. Damien Harris finally got the lion’s share of carries that he’s deserved all season, and turned 19 of them into 77 tough yards. When he was in the game, the Tide offense usually kept chugging along. When he subbed out for Scarbrough, however, things seemed to almost always stall. Bo had a couple of missed open holes early, and just never could really break any runs. Josh Jacobs got a catch on a swing pass early, but never really saw playing time after that.

Jalen Hurts was 16/24 for 120 yards and a couple of touchdowns. He had some really nice plays like the touchdown strike to Ridley, the couple of slant plays early, and the 13-yard strike to Ridley near the goal line, but also had some bad misses like the underthrown flea-flicker and another underthown deep crosser that had Robert Foster diving to try and make the catch.

Some rumors before the game started were that the coaching staff had plans to get some playing time for freshman QB phenom Tua Tagovailoa, but whether there was any truth or not, Hurts did enough to keep the coaches from wanting to make any sort of change up.

A week from now, we take on Georgia. There will be plenty of talk about that game here all week, so for now, let’s celebrate the win.

Despite the criticisms and doubts of the entire country (including most of their own fan base), the Alabama Crimson Tide came out and put on a defensive clinic that coaches will be using as teaching film on a nearly perfect defensive game for years to come. After two post seasons of being shredded by DeShaun Watson, the defense had a point to prove, and they pounded not just Clemson, but the entire national media, into submission with a relentless attack of possibly the most fearsome pass rush you’ll ever see.

This is not a team playing tight and trying to preserve a perfect record like last year...

This is a team on a warpath.