NEW ORLEANS — The rubber match of the Alabama-Clemson trilogy was a total dud compared to the previous meetings.
Except to the Crimson Tide defense, which will remember it as a thing of beauty.
In a game where every yard was a struggle, the ‘Bama defenders took matters into their own hands. The Tide’s defense scored a pair of touchdowns just 13 seconds apart in the third quarter to turn an offensive slog into a 24-6 rout of defending national champion Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game Monday night.
“That was a relentless defensive attitude,” said coach Nick Saban, who earned another shot at his record-tying sixth national title. “They were warriors out there on the field. I couldn’t be more proud of the way a bunch of guys competed for 60 minutes.”
It was quite a contrast to the teams’ last two games, both high-scoring classics with the national title on the line , not to mention the Rose Bowl semifinal that preceded it. Georgia knocked off Oklahoma 54-48 in a double-overtime thriller that wasn’t decided until the Alabama was on its second possession in the Big Easy.
There would be no drama in the nightcap. With Deshaun Watson off to the NFL, top-ranked Clemson (12-2) simply had no answer for the Crimson Tide’s latest group of defensive standouts, setting up an all-Southeastern Conference showdown for the national title — with Saban matched against his former defensive coordinator, Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
“I’m proud of the job he’s done,” Saban said. “I’m sure it will be a great football game.”
Clemson was fortunate to be down only 10-3 at halftime against the fourth-ranked Tide (12-1), and actually closed the gap with a field goal after Jalen Hurts fumbled on the first play of the second half.
But any thoughts of a Tiger rally were snuffed out by the time the third quarter was done.
It began with 308-pound defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne picking off a wobbly pass, the ball fluttering through the air after besieged Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant was hit as he threw — a familiar sight on this night.
Payne rumbled 21 yards on the return, even showing off an impressive open-field move that eluded running back Travis Etienne’s attempted tackle, and drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty when Tremayne Anchrum yanked him down with a horse collar.
After Alabama drove to a first down at the Clemson 1, Payne re-entered the game — presumably to add another big body for blocking purposes. That’s certainly what Clemson was thinking, totally biting when Hurts faked the handoff.
Payne slipped open near the right pylon and hauled in the touchdown pass, even managing to get both feet down before the celebration commenced beyond the sideline.
“I’ve got gold hands,” quipped Payne, who was picked as the game’s defensive MVP.
A bit shell-shocked by that turn of events, Clemson was thoroughly demoralized after its next offensive play. Bryant’s pass deflected off the hands of Deon Cain and was intercepted by linebacker Mack Wilson, who returned it 18 yards for another touchdown.
Just like that, Alabama had an 18-point lead.
They could’ve called it right then.
“Just incredibly disappointed in our performance,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “But congratulations to Alabama. They were the better team today. No doubt about it.”
The Tide, which began the season in Atlanta beating Florida State , will return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Monday night to face No. 3 Georgia and give Saban a shot at his sixth title, which would match Bear Bryant.
Saban has four championships in the last eight years at Alabama, along with a BCS title at LSU during the 2003 season.
This is eerily reminiscent of Alabama’s run to the 2011 championship, another season when the Tide didn’t even win its own division or play for the SEC title. That year, Saban’s team lost at home to LSU during the regular season but got a second chance against the top-ranked Tigers with the biggest prize on the line — in the Sugar Bowl, no less.
On that night in the Big Easy, Alabama defense didn’t allow LSU to cross midfield until the closing minutes of a suffocating 21-0 victory. This defensive performance was nearly as impressive.
Clemson was held to 188 yards — 260 yards below its season average — and never reached the end zone. Bryant was sacked five times and the Tigers were held to 64 yards on the ground.
Alabama played it tough right to the end, denying Clemson on a fourth-down pass into the end zone with just over a minute remaining.