Alabama's defense gets steamrolled by Clemson in national championship game
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With its high-octane offense, Alabama could afford to field a strong but less-than-overwhelming defense this season; a unit that ranked 10th in the nation in yards per game given up and fourth in opponents’ points.
What the Crimson Tide couldn’t afford in the national championship game against Clemson was this:
♦ 44 points allowed, their second-highest total ever under coach Nick Saban.
♦ Clemson passes of 62 and 74 yards, after Alabama yielded only one completion of at least 60 yards all season.
♦ Virtually no pressure on quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who finished with a rating of 184.5 in becoming just the second true freshman QB to claim a victory in a national title game.
Alabama could point to plenty of reasons for its spectacular pratfall in a 44-16 loss to the Tigers in Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game, including an inexplicable disappearance in the final three quarters by its once-formidable offense, which scored three points in that span.
But the guys in charge of keeping the opponents out of the end zone deserves a fair amount of the blame as well.
An average effort by the Crimson Tide defenders — yielding 295 yards and about 15 points — certainly would have put them in position to claim the school’s sixth national title in a decade.
Instead, Clemson racked up 482 yards and Lawrence earned offensive player of the game honors by going 20-for-32 for 347 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Even more telling, the Tigers went 10-for-15 in third-down conversions, in addition to cashing in on their one fourth-down try.
“We didn’t play well enough on defense to win, because if you can’t get off the field on third down, you’re going to have a hard time when you’re playing against a good team,’’ Saban said.
With Outland Trophy winner Quinnen Williams anchoring a line that also features defensive end Isaiah Buggs (team-high 9 ½ sacks), the Tide were expected to pressure and try to rattle Lawrence, one of the nation’s top recruits last year but a freshman nonetheless.
And indeed, Lawrence misfired on five of his seven first-quarter passes, though the Tigers still led 14-13 after the opening 15 minutes. Then they took over with 17 second-quarter points, as Lawrence started finding the range. In the final three quarters, he completed 18 of his 25 attempts for 277 yards and three TDs.
Lawrence’s life was made considerably easier by the Tide’s inability to get to him. They failed to record a sack — or a turnover — and barely laid a finger on him.
“He was very comfortable in the pocket, had time to throw,’’ Saban said, “and we didn’t get him covered very well in the back end at times.’’
Strangely, Williams was not all that impressed with Lawrence, whose blondish, shoulder-length mane makes him look better suited for riding waves than taming the Tide.
“He was good, but I felt like the receivers made him better. The receivers made all the plays,’’ Williams said, arguing that the defensive line did harass Lawrence. “We put a lot pressure on him but he did what he was supposed to do. He made plays and the receivers made plays.’’
The Clemson receivers certainly were outstanding, especially Justyn Ross. The 6-foot-4 freshman from Phenix City, Alabama, had a breakout performance in the 30-3 victory over Notre Dame in the CFP semifinal, catching six passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
He had nearly identical numbers on Monday, time and again burning Alabama defenders with six receptions for 153 yards and a score.
The Tide allowed six plays of 20 yards or more, including Ross’s 74-yard TD catch in the third quarter to boost Clemson’s lead to 37-16. Those were the first points of the second half and essentially put the game away.
In the last quarter, with their deficit at 28 points, the Tide had the ball for a mere 3:53 as the Tigers played keep away.
“We just got whupped,’’ defensive end Raekwon Davis said. “Nobody did their job. The pass rush, the run stop, it wasn’t there. … We weren’t prepared. It was just us. It wasn’t anything they were doing. We killed ourselves.’’
Well, the Tigers might have had something to do with the slaughter.
Follow USA TODAY's Jorge Ortiz on Twitter @jorgelortiz.