ATLANTA — That unbelievable Alabama defense that Washington had to answer questions about all week before the Peach Bowl semifinal? Turns out, it was as good as advertised. Maybe better.
“We've studied every snap that they've had this year and the tape doesn't lie when you watch that much tape. I mean, that's as good a defense as there is out there in college football,” Washington coach Chris Petersen sighed after his team lost 24–7 Saturday in the Georgia Dome. “And they played like it.”
What stings even more, and will serve Alabama (14–0) well next week in its title game rematch with Clemson, is that the Tide beat the Huskies at their own game.
Washington came into Saturday leading the country in turnover margin. If the Huskies were going to pull off one of the biggest upsets in college football history, they’d have steal a few extra possessions, and turn those takeaways into points. But it got off to a bad start, when Washington safety Budda Baker didn’t corral what should have been a sure interception on the Tide’s first offensive play, a long pass from Jalen Hurts intended for O.J. Howard. Baker slammed the ground in frustration, but told himself he’d get another opportunity. It wouldn’t come.
Instead, UW turned it over twice in the first half—first on a John Ross fumble and later, on a Jake Browning interception—and Alabama took that second turnover back to the end zone, scoring the defense’s 11thtouchdown of the season.
Senior linebacker Ryan Anderson, who rumbled in for the score, became the ninth defensive player to score for Alabama this year. Anderson gave credit to fellow linebacker Reuben Foster for giving him to “the call to peel the back,” which allowed him to step in front of Browning’s pass.
“You play against a team like that, and that’s usually what it comes down to,” said Browning. “They beat us in the turnover game … They’re the best team in the nation right now, the hottest team in the nation and kinda the program that’s running college football. And we’re a couple plays away … you’re not gonna see many teams better than that.”
Saban pointed to that pick as an example of Alabama’s unselfishness. He also got emotional talking about the impact of Eddie Jackson, the All-American safety lost for the season in October when he broke his leg against Texas A&M. One day before the semifinal against Washington, Jackson penned an emotional letter to his teammates. “I think that article epitomized the defensive chemistry that we have and how important those guys are to each other, and how well they play together,” Saban said.
John Ross, one of the most explosive receivers in the country who was held to just 28 yards, said afterward that Alabama didn’t really do anything to surprise him. He thought the Tide might play more man coverage, but reverted back to something almost every Washington player and coach had said for the last month: What Alabama does isn’t that complicated. It just does it really, really well.
Said a dejected Ross in the postgame locker room: “I kept waiting for something good to happen but …”
It never did. Early in the third quarter, trailing just 17–7, UW forced a fumble but couldn’t grab it in time. A Tide player fell on it and though Alabama punted two plays later, it ate up more time. Alabama came into the game allowing only 247.8 yards per game. Washington totaled just 194.
So what does that mean for Clemson?
The Tigers are obviously familiar with the Tide, having rolled up 550 yards of offense in last year’s 45–40 championship game loss. They racked up 31 first downs that night (to Alabama’s 18), and Deshaun Watson completed 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns. Watson has been criticized this year for throwing more interceptions than last season (17 in 2016, including two in the semifinal win over Ohio State, compared to 13 in 2015) and some believe his habit of giving the ball away contributed to him losing the Heisman again.
The difference in turning the ball over against Alabama, of course, is that there’s a decent chance the Tide take it back for six points. (Against Washington, Alabama had to settle for a field goal after Ross’s fumble, a small victory for the Huskies in a night filled with frustration.)
But Watson looks terrific as of late. In his last two games, the senior quarterback has completed a combined 46-of-70 passes for 547 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for a combined 142 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries.
This title game building is eerily similar to the 2006 Rose Bowl, when Texas and Vince Young, a Heisman afterthought, stunned “unbeatable” USC. Watson and Clemson will get more respect than the Longhorns did, but not by much. The last question to Watson Saturday night, after Clemson shut out Ohio State coach Urban Meyer for the first time in his coaching career, was about Alabama, how good the Tide are, and if Watson has spent much time keeping tabs on them. He said he’s been focused on his own team.
Maybe this means Clemson is due for a big takedown. Or maybe it means Alabama’s defense will again live up to the hype. It certainly has so far this postseason.