Well, that was.... something.
Alabama came roaring out of the gate looking like the superior football team by a fair margin. The defense forced a quick three-and-out and, after a head-scratching pick-six by Tua Tagovailoa that would serve as an omen, the offense marched right down the field to tie the score. Immediately, the defense had Trevor Lawrence and company in 3rd-and-14 on the ensuing possession. The freshman was looking a little shaky at that point, and frankly wasn’t great under pressure most of the night (unfortunately he was rarely under pressure, but I digress). A hit on him there and a forced punt would have gone a long way toward the Tide racing out to an early cushion.
Alas, Tosh Lupoi made the decision to rush only three and it hurt, as Deionte Thompson bit up and let WR Tee Higgins behind him for an easy 62 yards that the Tigers would cash in for seven more. Unphased, the Tide offense marched right down the field a second time, mostly with the run game, and made it look rather easy. Of course, Joseph Bulovas managed to miss his sixth extra point, but after the defense forced another three-and-out, it felt like the Tide would start to seize control of the game.
indeed, the offense got the ball back near the 50 and marched again, getting all the way down to the half-yard line on 2nd-and-goal. The Tide had made every mistake imaginable to keep Clemson in the game to this point despite outgaining them almost 3-to-1. Outside of the one lapse, the defense had been solid. A touchdown and another stop would have had the Tide in firm control of things and well on their way to another national title. Unfortunately for the Tide, a false start by Jedrick Wills moved the ball back to the 5 and Clemson’s defense bowed up from there to force a field goal. It was yet another mistake for the Tide, but they still had a narrow lead on the scoreboard and were dominating in the trenches.
Nobody knew it at the time, but that false start was the turning point.
Bulovas followed with his second gaffe, kicking the football out of bounds to put Clemson on their own 35. A quick, correctly called pass interference penalty on a ball that Higgins probably wasn’t going to catch moved it to the 50. Mack Wilson then overran a simple RB screen to give up 26. Clemson punched it in from there to take a lead that they would never relinquish.
On the following possession, Tagovailoa threw another horrible interception, again baited by the coverage disguise. This one was particularly frustrating because six consecutive run plays had moved the ball 38 yards. Venables had clearly bet that Tua and Mike Locksley couldn’t stay patient, and he was right. With a lead, the ball across the 50 and renewed confidence, Lawrence moved it down the field and punched it in again. Another great call by Venables created a third-down sack on the next possession, and Lawrence advanced the ball for a field goal.
Down by 15 at the break and getting the ball, the Tide came out looking like a team prepared to restore order. Damien Harris ripped off two runs for 26 yards and the Tide were in business again. On 2nd-and-6 at the Clemson 22, Tua completed a three-yard pass to Devonta Smith. Unfortunately, since fate was in charge on this night, Smith fumbled the ball with his knee about in inch off the turf and it rolled back to the line of scrimmage. He recovered, but it was 3rd-and-6 rather than 3rd-and-3. Still, you had to figure on another running play since the Tide had been successful on the ground and it was likely four down territory, right? Right?
Of course not. Tua attempted to get the ball to Irv Smith with a Clemson defender draped on his back, which should have drawn a flag. Unfortunately the Tigers somehow managed to commit only one skinny penalty all night and that wasn’t it. Comically, the next play was a fake field goal with Bulovas following lead blocker extraordinaire Mac Jones between the tackles. Yes, you read that correctly: on the edge of the red zone, our coaching staff ran the ball with Joseph Bulovas rather than one of our excellent backs who had been making hay all night. Shockingly, it failed.
Justyn Ross was promptly left wide open as Saivion Smith crumpled to the ground with some sort of lower leg injury, and the Tigers were up 21. The Tide would drive the ball again but come up short, partially because Clemson again managed not to commit a penalty despite a corner grabbing Jerry Jeudy with both hands on third down.
As I said in the postgame, most of the credit should go to Venables. He knew he had a bad physical matchup, so he scouted the hell out of it and created some plays. So often, football comes down to turnovers and red zone conversions, and Clemson won in a landslide in those two critical areas. Yes, the Tide made a ton of stupid mistakes and the yellow flags were skewed in the Tigers’ favor, the two third down pass interference non-calls looming large. Still, Clemson executed their game plan on both sides of the ball and deserve all the credit. The object of the game is to accumulate points not yards, and that is exactly what they did.
The hot takes are already getting ridiculous, and I’m sure they will continue through the offseason. Football can be a funny game, and this was just Clemson’s night. In hindsight, perhaps the staff had done a masterful job all season covering for the defensive shortcomings. The Tide replaced five starters in the secondary, lost the best pass rusher in the preseason and best cover corner early in the season, yet still managed to perform well enough to get to this point. Perhaps the loss of Christian Miller was the last straw, as the pass rush didn’t get home often enough. They actually stuffed the run well until the last drive when the game was over, but a combination of mental mistakes and great execution by Clemson got them torched through the air.
The offense made plenty of plays all night, they just didn’t convert in the red zone. No matter how you slice it, 400 yards of offense through three quarters should produce more than 16 points. Irv Smith has a decision to make, but the Tide will return a ton of talent on that side of the ball. The defense has to replace the line, but there will be no shortage of good candidates with the talent on hand plus a stellar class, and barring another injury Terrell Lewis will be back. They will enter next season as the odds-on favorite to win the SEC and make another playoff to seek redemption. if you said anything along the lines of “this is the beginning of the end blah, blah, blah” last night, please slap yourself and snap out of it. This was one game and a rather weird one, nothing more.
As Saban has said before, “never waste a failure.” Like last year’s game was to Clemson, this one should serve as great offseason motivation for all of those who return. Hopefully they are able to regroup and get back to the top of the mountain. Only eight months ‘til game day, folks.