Alabama wins Sugar Bowl in dominating fashion over Clemson, Clinching 3rd straight National Title Game Berth
Written By: Erik Slaby
New Orleans, LA - On a cold night here at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Clemson Tigers by a score of 24-6 in the 2018 Allstate Sugar Bowl. In the third matchup of this trilogy, Alabama got the better of Clemson. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts spoke briefly about defeating Clemson after the game.
“It feels good. It is like a rivalry game,” said Hurts. “It was redemption. We have been here before. We can’t be too happy. We have to get ready to go out and finish this thing.”
From the start, it was apparent that Alabama had complete control of the game even if the score did not indicate it at the time. They set the tone for the game early on with the physical play of their defense on Clemson’s first offensive drive. On that drive, Clemson had a run for no gain, a pass for three years and then an incomplete pass. From that point, it felt like this would be a difficult, physical game for Clemson. And it definitely was.
In the first half, Clemson offense was shut down by the Alabama defense. They struggled to get anything going as they only advanced the ball past midfield once in the first half. At the end of the first quarter, they had negative seven yards of total offense while Alabama had 102 yards. The biggest problem for Clemson both offensively and defensively was their poor starting field position on drives. Their average starting field position was their own 19-yard line. This, coupled with the fact that the Alabama defense was having their way with them, led to Alabama’s average starting field position being their own 43-yard line.
Coming out of halftime, with Alabama leading 10-3, Clemson appeared to make the play that would change the momentum of the game in their favor. Deep in Alabama territory at their own 22-yard line, Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph forced and recovered a fumble by Hurts. Three plays later, Clemson kicker Alex Spence drilled a 42-yard field goal to bring them within four points. Then on Alabama’s next drive, Clemson forced a punt. At that point, one could feel the Clemson crowd starting to get back into the game as it felt like the tide was shifting, so to speak. But that was not the case.
On Clemson’s next offensive possession, they were driving the ball down the field and were in Alabama territory on their 35-yard line when the play of the game happened. Like most of the night, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant was under duress by a deadly Alabama pass rush. As he moved his arm forward to throw, his arm was hit by an Alabama defender and the ball was intercepted by Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne. Payne then returned the interception 21 yards to the Clemson 42-yard line.
Alabama drove the ball down the field to the two-yard line when an unfamiliar face on offense came on the field. Payne entered the game as a fullback so many believed he was just in as a blocker. It was a passing play and as it developed, Payne leaked out of the backfield on an eerily similar looking play to the game-winning touchdown scored by Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow last year in the National Championship Game. And it had the same result as Hurts completed a two-yard touchdown pass to Payne, who managed to get two feet in bounds. The crowd roared and his teammates erupted on the sidelines after the score.
Payne spoke briefly about scoring play after the game. “I had been talking to Coach lots about it. He said, "Just keep on working, and you might get it." And I tried my best to go out and practice and work hard, and they finally gave it to me.”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban stated after the game laughing, “When he (Payne) made the interception, there was no doubt that we were going to throw him the ball on the goal line.”
The final nail in the coffin for Clemson came on their very next offensive possession. Clemson had the ball and like most of the night, were deep in their own territory on their own 13-yard line when Bryant’s pass was intercepted by Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson. He then sprinted down the field and returned the interception for a touchdown. At that point, one could feel all of the air being sucked out of the Clemson fans and the team.
Even though there was roughly a quarter left to play, Clemson did not pose a threat at all. The Alabama defense stood strong like they had all night and punt three more times. Alabama had five sacks on the game and held Clemson to 188 yards of total offense.
Alabama will now start preparing to play against their SEC rival, the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2018 College Football Playoff Championship Game. Georgia is coached by a familiar face in former Alabama defensive coordinator and Saban disciple Kirby Smart. Saban offered his quick thoughts on Smart and the matchup after the game.
“I'm proud of the job that Kirby has done there,” said Saban. “They have a great football team. It will be a challenging game for us, so we'll enjoy this one a little bit then we gotta get ready for that one pretty quick."
Writer Erik Slaby
New Orleans, LA - Star Wars. Ali versus Frazier. The Cavaliers versus the Warriors. What do all of these great events have in common? The number three. This matchup in the 2018 Allstate Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Clemson is the third time in the last three years that these two teams have played each other. This Alabama versus Clemson matchup has the potential to join these other notable events. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney spoke a bit about the rivalry brewing between these two teams from these high-profile games they have competed against each other in.
“We haven't competed against each other a lot,” said Swinney. “But all of a sudden you've got this three-game series that has just happened at the highest level. And this is kind of a rubber match. But, to be honest with you, this is probably not going to be the last one. There will probably be more of these down the road, and I think that's great. I think it's a fun game. Again, this is big-boy football. You have got a lot of incredibly talented football players that are going to be on the field, and they all want the same thing. I don't have any doubt it will be a great game.”
Both of these teams have very similar strengths. Especially on defense. Alabama is ranked 1st in total defense while Clemson is ranked 5th. Alabama is 1st in scoring defense and Clemson is 2nd. Alabama is 6th is passing yards allowed by the defense and Clemson is ranked 7th. These are all very comparable numbers and it shows how similar these teams are defensively.
Where they differ a bit defensively is in red zone defense and total sacks on the season. Alabama is ranked 18th overall in red zone defense while Clemson is tied for 34th. Clemson though has 46 sacks on the year, compared to Alabama’s 31. Clemson’s biggest strength this season has been their defensive line. They are very stout upfront, have great depth across the line and are a tough task for any opposing offensive line to block.
Clemson defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence spoke about the starters on the defensive line and how important to their success not being selfish has been.
“We definitely set each other up front,” said Lawrence. “We all want to make the plays, but we know we're not going to make every play. So we set each other up to make plays and being disciplined every day. And we know it's bigger than us four. It's the whole defense, the whole team. And being selfish is not going to help us win ballgames.”
Lawrence also spoke about making sure the younger guys on the defensive line are being coached and are learning from the starters. “We work on the whole unit, giving them constructive criticism, not bringing them down, being positive all the time, you know, and encouraging them, giving them little confidence and things like that.”
Where Alabama may have an advantage over Clemson though is with their offense. Under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Alabama’s offensive has improved from last year. Much of that can also be attributed to the growth of quarterback Jalen Hurts from last season. Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley spoke about the growth of Hurts and where he has improved the most.
“The passing game -- I feel like his passing game got better,” said Ridley. “Sometime last year, he would sit back and just take it all. Now he sits back and he reads, he reads, he reads. And if it's not it, then he takes off. So that makes a whole big difference. And sometimes receivers can't get open every time, and he finds some way to make a great play with his feet. So his feet does help us in some type of ways. At the end of the day, he's doing a great job.”
Clemson defensive end Christian Wilkins also spoke briefly about the play of Alabama running back Damien Harris, the Alabama skill players and offensive line.
“Their running backs, just better and better,” said Wilkins. “I see Damien Harris taking off -- I think for two games, he just had a first play, house calls. It was like, ‘oh, man, all right, yeah.’ And just like the skill guys, they got speed and talent on the outside and everything which is impressive and everything like that. And the O-line is talented, strong and moving people so we have to put our big-boy pants on there.”
As the history of these two teams matching up have shown us, this game will probably feature plenty of scoring as both teams are familiar enough with each other. This will be a physical game and the tone of this game will be set in the first quarter. Alabama must show that Hurts can make plays with his arm, rather than his legs and attack a vulnerable Clemson secondary. Alabama’s offensive line will need to protect Hurts and open up lanes for their running backs against a formidable Clemson defensive line. If Alabama accomplishes all of this, they will likely win.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant and the offense must show early on that they can attack Alabama with deep completions downfield. If they are able to do that, this will free up space for the running backs and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. If Clemson is able to do this, their chances of winning increase dramatically. If they cannot, the threat of Alabama will be looming over them, casting an ominous feeling like Darth Vader and Imperial Empire over the galaxy.
The 2018 Allstate Sugar Bowl takes place on January 1st, 2018 at 8:45 EST at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.