By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 31, 2016
Another year, another lopsided victory in a national semifinal.
Back in the 1980s, Alabama chopped up the old Astroturf at Bryant-Denny Stadium and sold off squares of it as souvenirs. Alabama fans would like the same opportunity to buy a piece of Georgia Dome history, given the Crimson Tide’s dominance there.
This time out in Alabama’s Atlanta getaway, the Crimson Tide defense throttled Washington, holding the high-powered Huskies to 195 total yards, one productive offensive drive and no fireworks from either the sharp-minded Chris Petersen or his quarterback, Jake Browning. For the second time this year, Alabama took a PAC-12 offense led by a pro-style quarterback and ran it through a crimson meat grinder. Alabama’s cumulative score against the two best teams in that conference? Try 76-13.
This was no clean game, however, and nothing to get especially excited about from an offensive execution standpoint. Other than RB Bo Scarbrough and a couple of others, Alabama’s offense had all the allure of a knockout’s unattractive friend at a singles bar: They were … there.
In terms of whether the ends can at least make up for the means, if not justify them, the offense was working as intended. Alabama didn’t turn the ball over, it ate up a bunch of clock and it kept Browning from getting in more shots – although by the end of the game, it appeared Browning was more worried about the shots he was taking, not the ones he was handing out.
Browning’s lack of arm strength hadn’t been an issue for Washington this year, aside from the USC loss. Alabama couldn’t bet on it being a bellwether, since it was a one-off event. But after seeing it again in Atlanta, it’s now clear that Washington simply didn’t have enough pieces around Browning to cover up his area of weakness. The Tide held him to a paltry 3.95 yards per attempt, an almost unheard-of stat for a player of his caliber.
Defensively, this was as good an effort as any Alabama has put forth, ever. The Crimson Tide kept Washington’s rushing attack corralled, its receivers were non-factors and Alabama’s defensive front manhandled the Husky offensive line. To do this given that Petersen had a month to ready his team for the game is an accomplishment in itself, given how good he has been historically at coming up with special gameplans to attack stronger opponents. Browning spent much of the afternoon trying to find where the pocket was, only for an Alabama defender to pop up at just the wrong place and the wrong time.
Off all the people who should be happy Alabama won this game, Lane Kiffin should top the list, because if the Huskies had found a way to pull this off, this game would have been a horrid memory with which to send Kiffin on his way to Boca Raton. Alabama’s playcalling flowed like syrup through a syringe, which is to say it didn’t. For some reason, Alabama has decided that Scarbrough is the only back capable of running downhill, and the decision to make Jalen Hurts such a fixture of the attack given his proclivity to fumble – not to mention Washington’s expertise at forcing turnovers – was another questionable directive.
Alabama will get the winner of Ohio State-Clemson next, which will provide someone a rematch opportunity. If Clemson is the opponent, Alabama will need to figure out how to get better production in the passing game. The Tigers are not nearly as easy to shut down offensively as was Washington, thanks to Deshaun Watson’s higher-quality skill set.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Washington:
1. Two defensive plays set the tone for this beatdown. Ryan Anderson’s pick-six headed into halftime was this game’s Marcell Dareus moment, flipping the tone of the game for good. But the strip of John Ross by Anthony Averett – who had probably his best game at Alabama – and subsequent recovery by Jonathan Allen was just as huge. The Ross play visibly deflated the Husky offense, as it was an example of Alabama’s defense making a physical play against Washington’s go-to threat. Washington never seemed to recover mentally from Ross’ fumble; Anderson’s interception finished the Huskies off.
2. A good day if you like outdated concepts like defense and field position. Washington came into the game ranked 122nd in net punting and 90th in punt return defense, but you’d never know it by the results. Tristan Vizcaino executed the rugby-style and delayed punting games perfectly, averaging almost 8 yards more per kick than his season average. But it’s hard to argue Alabama’s J.K. Scott wasn’t just as effective, or even more so. One particular Scott punt proved to be the precursor to Anderson’s pick-six, as it pinned the Huskies behind their comfort zone and affected the playcalling that led to the interception in question. The Georgia Dome has always been a punter’s best friend, but this was just an outstanding performance from two kickers. And given Washington only crossed midfield twice, the importance of what Scott did for Alabama can’t be overlooked.
3. Alabama’s defense identified Washington’s playmakers and then neutralized them all. It wasn’t just Jake Browning that had a bad day; Alabama also kept his supporting cast shut in their dressing rooms. Perhaps no one was eliminated from the Husky game plan with more effectiveness than WR John Ross, who came into the game with 1,122 yards receiving on the season, and averaging almost 15 yards per catch. Alabama held him to 5 catches for 28 yards, with a long reception of just 9 yards. He was also victimized for a key turnover and, with his teammates clearly looking to him for a spark, instead short-circuited. Running back Myles Gaskin, who had 74 yards on 15 touches, had the closest thing to an impact performance Washington was able to muster. But given he only managed 3.4 yards per carry as a running back – his primary position, after all – it’s no wonder the Washington offense sputtered. Power back Lavon Coleman was completely shut down (16 yards on 7 carries). Chico McClatcher got 16 yards on a jet sweep, which goes down as the best offensive play of the game outside of Dante Pettis’ touchdown catch. Washington had no one to turn to in clutch situations, and it was reflected in the many flabbergasted looks on Jake Browning’s face.
4. Scarbrough breaking out at the right time. Bo Scarbrough’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter might threaten to knock Linnie Patrick’s Auburn run out of the pregame Jumbotron highlight package next year in Tuscaloosa. This was even a more impressive performance for Scarbrough given the Alabama offensive line played one of its worst games of the year, especially up the middle. For the first time, Korren Kirven appeared to struggle in his new role, and Bradley Bozeman’s performance at center was uneven. Alabama fared better in tackle play, but the caveat here is that Washington’s defensive line, while solid, lacks any superstars. Washington was able to get pressure sometimes with just four rushers, and what Alabama sees against either Clemson or Ohio State will be more impressive from a talent standpoint. Scarbrough, though, appeared to run with more confidence, less indecisiveness and more explosion. Alabama has managed his carries all year; there’s now one game left with no tomorrow if Alabama loses. Expect to see more Scarbrough in the final than ever before.
5. Officials lost control of the game at the end. It’s rare that a team uses some of its postgame media time to complain about cheap shots from the opposition, but Reuben Foster did just that and Nick Saban backed him up. Washington’s conduct the final few minutes of the game was unacceptable, but the Big Ten officiating crew assigned to this game shares some of the blame. There were some right-to-the-edge-of-the-whistle hits that had already been let go leading up to the Huskies’ final drive, and the problem with officiating that way is that it’s hard to put horses back in the barn once the doors have swung open. Predictably, a frustrated Washington offensive line decided to take a cheap shot at Alabama LB Reuben Foster, which triggered a larger scrum. The officials then made it even worse by seeing only one color jersey in the ensuing melee. This is the same Big Ten crew that received criticism for its handling of the Michigan-Ohio State game earlier in the year, so why was this crew even assigned to this game? Had Alabama lost a player for fighting in the second half of this game, that player would have missed the first half of the championship game – a fate that could easily have befallen both Jonathan Allen and Foster, both of whom were in the middle of it all and are impossible to replace. Ultimately, Washington is responsible for its own conduct, regardless of what the officials do. It’s disappointing that some of them came into the game as Huskies but chose to go out like chihuahuas, nipping and yapping at the bigger dogs in the fight.
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