By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 10, 2017
Alabama’s bid to win a second straight national championship fell short thanks to a combination of injuries, a lack of depth on its defensive line that finally came to a head and the struggles of a true freshman quarterback who seemed to run out of gas a bit down the season’s stretch.
But the fact two of Clemson’s touchdowns came on illegal pick plays in the end zone didn’t help Alabama’s chances at all.
Clemson scored identical touchdowns with future NFL star Mike Williams and likely future New England Patriots camp invitee Hunter Renfrow on the receiving end; both plays should have been flagged for offensive pass interference on the complementary receiver on that side of the field. So blatant was the second that the off-receiver didn’t even make an attempt to cover up his intentions, drive-blocking Marlon Humphrey into the end zone while redirecting safety Tony Brown away from Renfrow.
Effective, yes. In the spirit of the rules, not so much.
Nick Saban’s reaction to the second play told it all. The Crimson Tide coaching staff had worked to no avail to plead for offensive pass interference calls all night, of which there were several possible candidates. The officials, based out of the Big 12 – where administration of pass interference penalties has been a short suit for some time – as much as told Alabama that no such calls would be forthcoming. Saban simply shrugged off the second touchdown that came with 1 second left in the game, with a “what can you do” look on his face.
At the end of the day, though, if that’s what you know is coming, you can do something about it – like copy it. Alabama’s coaches have copied RPOs, the linemen-downfield buffer zone, tempo and a handful of other innovations that have emerged over the past few seasons. Now they can get to work on pick plays. Eventually, if enough teams do it, it will either get the rule relegated to the dustbin of football obsolescence (look up “interlocking interference” – it even has its own administrative hand signal in the rulebook – then try to remember the last time you saw it called, if ever), or it will force offense-addicted rules committees to at least shift down into a lower gear, if not apply the brakes.
There’s a good chance Clemson was the better team in this game, anyway. Better than a good chance, actually – the Tigers rolled up 512 yards of total offense and overcame 2 turnovers, not to mention made two clutch drives with under 7 minutes left to take the lead two different times.
Clemson was certainly the more well-rounded team. Its defense was almost a statistical match for Alabama’s, and its offense was supremely better, especially after Bo Scarbrough went down for the Crimson Tide. Unfortunately, there is going to be some talk about at least the game-winning touchdown to Renfrow, if not the earlier score to Williams, that will take some of the shine off the win.
At least until next year starts up, that is. There have been championships and other games decided by much more egregious errors than this one, but they tend to be forgotten once the trophy arrives on campus for its display.
Still, the fact remains that Clemson should have been kicking a field goal to tie at the end, although no one would have bet on Bama when overtime started. The Crimson Tide had spent all it had by that time.
For now, nothing for Alabama to do but get back to its knitting and use this game as motivation in 2017. Unless Alabama is the beneficiary of some unexpected development along its defensive line, it will need all the help it can get to get back to the championship, perhaps even the final four.
Consider the above a bonus to our usual Five-Point Breakdown for this game, which starts here:
1. Clemson’s game plan was to run plays and gas the Tide front seven. It worked. Alabama failed to develop defensive line depth this year and honestly was lucky it got to the championship game without losing a key contributor. Dakota Ball suffered an injury off the field over Christmas, but he had been removed from the playing rotation long before. With Clemson running almost 100 plays in this game – and spreading the field on nearly every one – it required Alabama’s front seven to display superhuman stamina just to hold serve, which it managed to do for three quarters.
But eventually, Alabama found itself simply gassed. The interior line stopped penetrating, and edge blitzes stopped being effective. Jeremy Pruitt did a good job to rotate responsibilities late in order to let Rashaan Evans run free at Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, but when the game film is broken down, it’s going to show that Clemson’s offensive line managed to keep the edges reasonably clean, not to mention the lack of push Alabama probably expected to get from DEs Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson.
2. Clemson ended up controlling both lines of scrimmage. Alabama’s offensive line has been effective but inconsistent the past two or three years, and problems arose again in this game. When Bo Scarbrough was fresh early in the game and before Clemson had time to adjust, Alabama’s left side did a commendable job in at least keeping contact manageable, and Scarbrough was able to run through contact just as he had done against Washington a week earlier. But as the game wore on, Alabama began to show cracks. For the second straight week, Alabama had issues up the middle and toward the right side, to the extent that coming out of the halftime break, the Crimson Tide opted to go with converted OL Brandon Greene at Y-tight end instead of Hale Hentges. For a team that needed a power identity, these last two weeks was a case of trouble bubbling up at an inopportune time.
Defensively, while Alabama might have been on top early in the game, by the end, the pendulum had swung squarely to Clemson. Alabama lost the fourth quarter 21-7, which was essentially the story in the 2016 game as well. Clemson’s young offensive tackles found their rhythm late in the game, largely making Tim Williams a non-factor off the edge. Ryan Anderson continued to play his way into NFL money, but fatigue was clearly a factor. For a program that prides itself so much on finishing and winning the fourth quarter of every game, this game ought to finally show the need for Alabama to rotate more players on the DL throughout the season even if the guys off the bench aren’t in the same league as the main rotation.
3. QB play, offensive systems dropped below stall speed the last two weeks. Had Lane Kiffin left Alabama prior to the Washington game and Steve Sarkisian been at the helm for both Alabama’s playoff games, Monday’s results would probably have sent fans off the deep end heading into 2017. As it was, those opponents, along with Florida before them, simply threw the cold water on Alabama’s face that should have come far earlier in the season, taking Kiffin off the hook slightly for the Washington performance and giving Sarkisian a reprieve as his tenure begins. Most everyone knew early on if this team was going to win, it was going to be with defense and not offense in 2017. A true freshman quarterback, an offensive line with multiple question marks and a set of rookies at running back would be hard to overcome.
In this game, Jalen Hurts was only marginally better than against Washington, and he really only made Clemson pay twice – the long touchdown pass to O.J. Howard, and the touchdown run to take the lead late in the game. Alabama once again ignored the middle of the field, evacuating the area between the hashmarks and forcing Hurts to either run, hand off or throw an out-route for most of the game. This is an area of concern that Sarkisian will have to help Hurts fix very early in the upcoming spring, or another change at the QB position isn’t completely out of the question.
The other issue to fix is the offensive line, which had poor numbers in both sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed on the season and despite its depth, couldn’t come up with a solution to the loss of Alphonse Taylor and Josh Casher at right guard. Alabama’s offense is perpetually undergoing transformation and it will be interesting to see where Sarkisian takes it, but Alabama often felt stuck in between two approaches in 2016, and that carried over in spades to the postseason.
4. For whatever reason, Tide secondary never looked in sync. Alabama allowed Watson to throw for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns, and aside from one ball batted at the line, never got close to intercepting a pass. Anthony Averett drew the assignment of covering Mike Williams most of the night, and he probably did the best he could do given the height differential. But Williams was a major factor (and would have been an even bigger one had he not missed part of the game with a head injury) and only played better the longer the game went along.
The guy that really did the damage, though, was Renfrow, and for the first time since his injury returning a punt, Eddie Jackson’s loss was clearly felt. With Jackson available, Minkah Fitzpatrick plays the Star position all night and the story is probably a different one. Clemson finished with four different receivers logging over 90 yards receiving each, and Bama let key third completions go all night. Clemson converted an astounding 31 third downs in the game. Clemson abused all areas of the Alabama secondary – corners, middle of the field, short-range – which hadn’t happened since the Arkansas game back in October.
If the key to beating a Nick Saban-coached team is having a quarterback on fire, Clemson certainly brought one on the bus. But Alabama didn’t appear to adjust in-game as quickly here as it had in earlier contests in 2016.
5. Injuries finally caught up to Alabama, Bo Scarbrough’s most of all. Prior to Scarbrough going out of this game, Alabama could keep its defense fresh enough by using its offense to manipulate the clock. But just as injuries to Eddie Jackson, Alphonse Taylor and Josh Casher had hurt this team – to say nothing of Shaun Dion Hamilton at linebacker – Bo Scarbrough leaving with yet another leg injury was a killer.
In three quarters, Scarbrough by himself had more rushing yardage than the entire Clemson team combined did for the whole game. Alabama mostly ran the ball well with replacements Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs, along with Jalen Hurts from the quarterback position, but losing Scarbrough seemed to have more of an effect mentally on both teams. Scarbrough only had 18 touches for the game, and the injury cemented his reputation as a guy prone to missing a lot of time. He was Alabama’s version of Chicago Cubs/New York Yankees fireballer Aroldis Chapman – unbeatable in short spurts, but prone to breaking down when overused.
It’s hard to say 18 touches qualified as being overused, but Scarbrough looked a bit winded the 2-3 carries before he got hurt. Early opinions on Steve Sarkisian suggest he might have more of a power philosophy than did his predecessor, which means managing Scarbrough’s situation will have a significant say in how the offense develops in 2017 and beyond.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN