It was Clemson-Alabama III, so something dramatic and unexpected was sure to arise.
How about a nose tackle with an interception, to set up a goal-line possession where that same nose tackle caught a touchdown pass?
Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne, a 308-pound lineman, picked off Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant in the third quarter. In the ensuing possession, Payne was back on the field as an eligible receiver, catching Jalen Hurts’ pass in the Crimson Tide’s 24-6 victory. The second of two College Football Playoff semifinals set up an all-SEC national championship game between Alabama and Georgia Monday night.
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The Bulldogs beat Oklahoma 54-48 in double overtime at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Monday’s national championship game is in Atlanta at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Bryant replaced storied Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, now with the NFL Houston Texans. Watson led the Tigers to the national championship last January in Tampa, Fla. Bryant was solid throughout this season, but Alabama, the last of four teams selected for these playoffs, overwhelmed him, dominating the Tigers’ offensive line.
After Payne’s score, Bryant was picked off again, although it wasn’t an errant throw: Bryant’s pass was deflected off Clemson wide receiver Deon Cain, ending up in the hands of Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson. Wilson returned the interception 18 yards into the end zone, giving Alabama a 24-6 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Three who mattered
Payne: Is there anything cooler in football than the fat guy getting to run with the ball? Better yet, catching a touchdown pass?
Damien Harris/Bo Scarbrough: Alabama’s dual threat at running back is a fine fit for the ball-control fashion coach Nick Saban aspires to win football games.
Alex Spence: “Mattered” might not be the most precise description, but Clemson’s fill-in kicker kept the Tigers in the game for a while with field goals of 44 and 42 yards.
▪ Clemson ended a three-possession first quarter with a net minus-7 total yards. The most egregious play on offense was Cain taking his eye off the ball on what should have been the easiest of catches.
▪ Saban called Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow a “Pain-in-the-you-know what” for the 17 catches, 180 yards and four touchdowns Renfrow totaled in the previous two matchups. Renfrow didn’t have a catch in the first three quarters, so obviously Saban accounted for him far more this time.
▪ The Tigers never reached the red zone in the first half, although an Alabama pass break-up near the goal line could easily have been ruled interference. Clemson gained just 73 yards in the first half, compared to 182 for Alabama.
▪ Once Georgia qualified for Atlanta, this was destined to be the hottest sports ticket in the South in a long time, regardless of who won between Alabama and Clemson.
▪ ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge correctly predicted Saturday that it wasn’t realistic to think these two teams could match the kind of offense they combined for in last season’s national championship game.
▪ Kickoff was pushed back 15 minutes to 9 p.m. (EST) because of the length of the Oklahoma-Georgia game at the Rose Bowl.
▪ This was just the second time in college football history that the same two teams played each other in three consecutive postseasons. The previous one was Ohio State and Southern Cal at the Rose Bowl 1973-74-75.
▪ Clemson has just one player from Louisiana, but it’s an important one, in freshman running back Travis Etienne from Jennings. Ten of Alabama’s players are from Louisiana.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell
Alabama 24, Clemson 6
BAMA—FG Pappanastos 24, 5:23
BAMA—Ridley 12 pass from Hurts (Pappanastos kick), :12
CLE—FG Al.Spence 44, 10:00
CLE—FG Al.Spence 42, 12:45
BAMA—Payne 1 pass from Hurts (Pappanastos kick), 5:40
BAMA—M.Wilson 18 interception return (Pappanastos kick), 5:27
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Alabama, D.Harris 19-77, Hurts 11-40, Scarbrough 12-24. Clemson, Etienne 4-22, K.Bryant 19-19, Choice 5-14, Feaster 4-10, (Team) 1-(minus 1).
PASSING—Alabama, Hurts 16-24-0-120. Clemson, Feaster 0-1-0-0, K.Bryant 18-36-2-124.
RECEIVING—Alabama, Ridley 4-39, Ruggs 2-25, Scarbrough 2-16, D.Harris 2-4, Jacobs 2-3, N.Harris 1-22, I.Smith 1-6, D.Smith 1-4, Payne 1-1. Clemson, Cain 6-75, H.Renfrow 5-31, McCloud 3-1, Feaster 2-(minus 3), Rodgers 1-16, Richard 1-4.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Alabama, Pappanastos 38.