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After Stopping Kyler Murray Just Often Enough, Alabama's Defense Recalibrates for Clemson

Alabama was complimentary of Kyler Murray—and critical of its own defense—after a double-digit Cotton Bowl win. Now the Crimson Tide know what it'll take against high-flying Clemson to earn another national title.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams almost said something about Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray at Orange Bowl media day, but he stopped himself in mid-sentence as if being Force-choked from across the room.

After the Crimson Tide’s 45–34 win against the Sooners on Saturday, Williams explained what happened between the words “Kyler Murray is not…” and “I’m good.”

“I didn’t see Coach Saban’s face,” Williams said. But he might have heard Nick Saban’s voice. Saban tells players that they should avoid saying anything that isn’t about the game. “I felt like I was going into an opinion, so I had to cut myself off,” Williams said.

Then things got more interesting. “I can finish the sentence now if I want to,” Williams said. With this, a reporter gave Williams a prompt. 

So, Kyler Murray is…

“Great,” Williams said. “Super fast. The real deal.”

Then he elaborated, with a not-so-subtle nod to Murray’s other sport.

“He’s really fast,” Williams said of Murray, who threw for 308 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 109 yards and one touchdown. “Like inside-the-park home run fast. He’s tough. He did his job really well. He’s a leader.”

Alabama defenders came away complimentary of Murray because Murray led the Sooners to scores on every second half possession (one field goal followed by three touchdowns). Those defenders were critical of their own performances because they didn’t like forcing Alabama’s offense into a position where it had to score practically every possession to maintain the lead. The Tide offense probably could have done that—or at least come close—on a night where quarterback Tua Tagovailoa completed 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns. Alabama scored touchdowns on two of its four second-half possessions, but the Tide would have also scored a touchdown on the last one had they not wanted to run out the clock to keep Oklahoma from getting the ball again.

What won Alabama the game—along with Tagovailoa’s pinpoint accuracy—were three early defensive stops that included two three-and-outs and a turnover on downs in the first quarter. The first three-and-out turned on a spectacular open-field tackle of Murray by linebacker Anfernee Jennings that set the tone for the first quarter.

Those three stops allowed Alabama to take a 28–0 lead. Then the Tide defense allowed points on all but one Oklahoma possession—the one when the first-half clock expired—afterward. “We can never get comfortable against an offense like that, and I feel like we didn’t come out with the intensity in the first half,” Alabama safety Deionte Thompson said. “So they were able to make plays and execute a little better than we did. That’s something that we have to correct going into the next game.”

The next game is against the same foe Alabama has faced the past three seasons in the College Football Playoff—including two national title games. Now that Clemson has solved its quarterback situation, it seems a foregone conclusion that stops will once again be at a premium in the national title game.

Against elite teams, we’re not going to see a team allow only 2.1 yards a play as Alabama’s defense did in a 21–0 win against LSU in the BCS title game following the 2011 season. In a 45–40 Alabama win against Clemson in the national title game three years ago, the Tide allowed an average of 6.5 yards a play. The following year, Alabama allowed a more respectable 5.2 but lost 35–31.

Last year, with Kelly Bryant starting at quarterback for the Tigers in a semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, the Tide allowed only 2.7 yards a play in a 24–6 win. But that seems unlikely against a Clemson offense led by freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Like Tagovailoa has for Alabama, Lawrence allows the Tigers to stretch the field, and lanky receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross give Lawrence freakish targets similar to what Mike Williams gave former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. In Clemson’s 30–3 Cotton Bowl win against Notre Dame, the Tigers relied on Lawrence early before the running game came around and allowed Clemson to milk the clock. Lawrence completed 27 of 39 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns, and his 8.4 yards per attempt surpassed anything a quarterback had done against Notre Dame’s defense this season.

Unlike Murray, Lawrence isn’t a threat to break a long run. But that’s what tailback Travis Etienne is for. The Tigers can arrive at a similar balance to Oklahoma, but in a different way. So Saban likely will remind his team all week that even if the Tide take a lead against the Tigers, that lead isn’t safe. “Well, it was no surprise to me that [Oklahoma] would come back in the game,” Saban said. “I kept telling our players on the sidelines, we have to keep playing, we have to keep grinding. We've got to play for 60 minutes. This team is very capable. I told them at halftime, the score last year in the [Rose Bowl], Oklahoma was ahead 35–10 and Georgia came back and won the game. So when you're playing against an explosive offensive team who can score very quickly, all parts of your team, special teams, offense, defense, everybody has got to continue to play well in the game.”

Alabama will need to play well in every phase to win a national title. But the Tide may have to understand that defensive dominance might be impossible against this opponent. The Tide don’t need to pitch a shutout. They just need enough stops to win a national title.

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A Random Ranking

We’re about to turn the page to 2019, which, as noted a few weeks ago, is the year the events of the movie The Running Man take place. In honor of the new year, I’m ranking the best 10 years I’ve been alive.

1. 2000
T2. 2009
T2. 2011
4. 2001
5. 1996
6. 1985
7. 1978 (or so I’m told)
8. 2007
9. 2002
10. 1989

Big Ugly of the Week

The biggest news of the runup to the semifinals was the suspension of Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence after Lawrence tested positive on an NCAA-administered drug screen. But the loss of a likely first-rounder only gave the Tigers a chance to prove how deep they are on the defensive line. Tackle Albert Huggins may have been a backup for his entire career, but he’ll still get drafted and play on Sundays. That’s the extent of the defensive line factory Clemson has created—the backups could start for almost anyone in America. Huggins had only one tackle in the win against Notre Dame, but he clogged the middle to help stymie an offense that entered Saturday averaging 190.5 rushing yards a game and finished Saturday with 88 rushing yards on 35 carries.

Three And Out

1. Georgia players, whose team finished No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, were not amused watching No. 3 Notre Dame get waxed by Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Here’s a sampling of the Bulldogs’ thoughts.

2. SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey reported Saturday that Houston coach Major Applewhite is on the verge of being fired after two seasons. The Cougars went 8–5, finishing the season with a 70–14 stinker against Army in the Armed Forces Bowl. Applewhite is 15–10 as Houston’s head coach. Shortly after Applewhite was hired to replace former boss Tom Herman in December 2016, the Houston Chronicle quoted school chancellor Renu Khator saying this (only sort of in jest) at a party for faculty and staff: “The winning is defined at University of Houston as 10–2. We’ll fire coaches at 8–4.”

Applewhite was set to replace two coordinators. Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio was fired in December. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles had agreed to stay but then took the Florida State OC job. The buyout the Seminoles must pay to hire Briles gives Houston close to $1 million in free money. Applewhite’s buyout is about $2 million.

If Applewhite is fired, don’t be shocked if Houston pursues West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, whose buyout drops from $2.5 million to $1 million on Tuesday. Holgorsen, a former Houston offensive coordinator, could reset his clock in a state he loves to recruit. It may seem odd that a Power 5 head coach would consider taking a Group of Five job, but it may be time for Holgorsen to leave Morgantown. He had his best West Virginia team in a year when TCU and Oklahoma State were down and Texas wasn’t quite fully back, and the Mountaineers still couldn’t make the Big 12 title game. It probably won’t get better than that anytime soon, and a fan base with outsize expectations could be disappointed and start demanding changes when reality sinks in.

3. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott’s latest plan looks like a not-yet-produced Silicon Valley script. That said, let’s pool our money and buy a piece of the Pac-12.

What’s Eating Andy?

Several fans at the Cotton Bowl were far more calm than I would have been if a large bird of prey had landed on me during a national anthem flyover-gone-awry.

What’s Andy Eating?

Even as the fresh-sliced meat went flying, the same thought echoed. It’s just a ham, turkey and roast beef sandwich. What’s so special about that? Sure, it’s cool (and probably not very easy) to fling slabs of cold cuts down the counter and into a waiting hoagie roll. The sandwich acrobats—calling them sandwich artists wouldn’t do justice to such a physically gifted group—at Laspada’s Original Hoagies have mastered the practice of launching lunch meat.

Still, it’s a parlor trick. It doesn’t change the fact that The Monster is a sandwich composed of the three most common American cold cuts and provolone cheese, which doesn’t seem all that exciting on its face.

But the tossing of the meat isn’t why the branches of this South Florida mini-chain get packed every day around noon. It’s a fine bit of theater, but it isn’t the reason everyone keeps coming back. The Monster may have humble ingredients, but they are fresh, delicious ingredients that rest on soft Italian bread and marry beautifully with the hot and sweet peppers and a savory-acidic-sweet combo of oil and vinegar. They also are plentiful. A 12-inch Monster makes the 12-inch sandwich at any national chain look puny.


But here’s the thing. The one sandwich that doesn’t involve any thrown meat might be the best thing on the menu. While The Monster and the Italian (ham, Genoa salami and cappicola) may be the most popular, the finest hoagie Laspada’s serves contains six marinara-soaked meatballs, provolone and parmesan cheese. This probably sounds just like any other meatball sub, and in terms of an ingredient list, it is. But those meatballs and that sauce on that bread make it something you’ll taste in your mind until you can bite into your next one.


No one needs to throw any meat to make you long for that sandwich.