That was unpleasant. And there’s no one series or play or player to point at and say, “Aha! That’s where it all went wrong!”
I thought about a couple areas, but I decided to look at Alabama’s first three offensive drives in the second half. Each ended inside the Clemson 25 yard line (technically not the red zone, but I’m counting it for these purposes), and none resulted in points. That led to a surmountable 15 point deficit inexorably increasing to an insurmountable 28 point deficit.
2nd and 6: Alabama has steadily marched down the field (40 rushing yards, 18 passing). The Tide gained 4 yards on a short pass to DeVonta Smith (#6) on first down. They have two receivers wide right with Irv Smith (#82) also on that side; DeVonta Smith is alone on the left. Irv Smith runs a little curl route designed to pick two defenders, and it works. The two receivers on the right run routes to clear the field on that side. DeVonta Smith just runs a crossing route, and Tagovailoa hits him in stride. The corner is in good coverage, though, and almost immediately tackles Smith. Unfortunately for the Tide, what should be 3rd and 3 turns into 3rd and 6 after Smith fumbles.
3rd and 6: Bama has trips left with Irv Smith in-line on the right. Clemson rushes four while Alabama keeps Damien Harris (#34) in, and the protection is fine here. Tagovailoa goes with his first read, Irv Smith on an in route; but the corner is all over him and easily breaks the pass up. There’s some contact before the pass gets there. You can debate whether pass interference should’ve been called, but it wasn’t. Henry Ruggs (#11) was open briefly on a curl route just past the sticks on the left.
The next play is that fake field goal, and I’m just not going to break that down. You can’t make me.
1st and 10: Alabama has moved the ball downfield quickly. There’s nothing fancy here, just an RPO here. Tagovailoa reads the linebackers coming down, so he pulls the ball from Josh Jacobs (#8) and throws it to Jaylen Waddle (#17) on a slant route. The defensive back plays it well and tackles Waddle right away. It’s still a 6 yard gain, though.
2nd and 4: Alabama switches to 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). Irv Smith is among the three receivers to the right, and Hale Hentges (#84) is on the line to the left. Clemson sends an extra rusher as Tagovailoa fakes the handoff to Jacobs. Right guard Alex Leatherwood (#70) pulls to the left but struggles with his man, center Ross Pierschbacher (#71) and right tackle Jedrick Wills (#74) struggle with their man. Tagovailoa throws a pass to Ruggs, who’s open on an in route near the goal line. With the pressure bearing down, he’s not really able to step into the pass and throws an inaccurate ball that Ruggs isn’t able to come down with.
3rd and 4: Alabama has two receivers far to the right. Jerry Jeudy (#4) starts wide left but motions in closer. He runs an out-breaking route, and Tagovailoa goes his way. However, the Clemson defensive back grabs and pulls the front of Jeudy’s jersey. Then, for good measure, he grabs the back of Jeudy’s jersey as well. Yet the ref, who’s right there, doesn’t call it. I’m loathe to complain about missed calls, but this should have been an easy first down for Alabama. Instead, it’s 4th down.
4th and 4: Alabama starts in a similar formation with Jeudy starting in close. This time, DeVonta Smith motions into a stack with Waddle. Smith runs an out route past the line to gain and is open. However, Tagovailoa feels pressure and takes off. There is a defender getting through Pierschbacher and Leatherwood, but I believe Tua had time to hit Smith. While he’s running, Jeudy is open, though it would have been a little difficult to complete. Tagovailoa either doesn’t see him or doesn’t think he can complete it. Tagovailoa gives a strong effort to scramble for the first and tries to juke a linebacker, but he comes up a yard short.
1st and goal: Alabama has quickly moved down the field; but they did that on the last two drives, too. Bama has two receivers in close on either side with Damien Harris on Tagovailoa’s right hip. Waddle motions right to left, drawing a defensive back with him; and the safety shades to that side as well. DeVonta Smith, the lone receiver on the right now, releases to the inside and runs up the seam while Harris just flares out to the right. Tagovailoa goes right to him and places it well. However, Clemson’s stand-up defensive end doesn’t rush and does an excellent job getting past the traffic of Smith and his defender; and he contacts Harris just enough to get him out of bounds.
2nd and goal: The offense predictably lines up in a traditional goal line formation. Irv Smith is the fullback. Hales Hentges is off to the left, and former starting right tackle Matt Womack (#77) is in as well. There’s a hole for Harris, but the Clemson linebacker fills it and stuffs Harris.
3rd and goal: Bama keeps the same formation and personnel and runs to the left again. Alex Leatherwood gets beat on his block, and Christian Wilkins gets penetration and brings Harris down for a loss.
4th and goal: Alabama switches to shotgun here. They have three receivers bunched in close on the right with one receiver to the left. Damien Harris is also to Tagovailoa’s left. Irv Smith motions to the left and brings another defender over with him. We’ve seen this play work before, but it fails miserably here. Tagovailoa gets the snap and takes off to his left a bunch of blockers. Clemson also has a bunch of defenders, though; and they blow it up almost immediately. The Tigers pour through, and Tagovailoa never has a shot.