Alabama Crimson Tide Rolls To Victory
By Harvey Fialkov
MIAMI GARDENS – Alabama is famous for its quick starts.
The heavily favored Crimson Tide scored touchdowns on their first four possessions and then held off the nation’s top-ranked offense on their way to a 45-34 victory over Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl in front of a sold-out, raucous 66,203 fans at Hard Rock Stadium Saturday night.
Alabama will bid for its sixth national championship in the past 10 seasons in a blockbuster matchup of undefeated teams at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 7. Top-ranked Alabama (14-0) will renew it budding rivalry with No. 2 Clemson (14-0), who overwhelmed No. 3 Notre Dame (12-1) 30-3 in the other CFP semifinal earlier Saturday afternoon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Alabama’s 21-point first quarter set an Orange Bowl record, eclipsing Georgia’s 19 scored against TCU in the 1942 Orange Bowl. Alabama has outscored opponents 220-45 in the first quarter.
“It was really important in this game we got off to a great start; we got ahead in the game,’’ Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We got off the field on third down on defense in the first half. That allowed us to get ahead in the game. That was the biggest issue in the second half, struggling to get off the field on third down, the quarterback scrambling, our inability to cover him.
“It’s a great win for us. These guys have done an incredible job all year long. I’m really proud of the way they competed and the way they played.’’
In a dynamic quarterback matchup of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of No. 4 Oklahoma and Alabama runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, it was the Crimson Tide sophomore firing strikes after the pregame pyrotechnic smoke cleared, completing his first nine passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns to stake Alabama to an insurmountable 28-0 lead.
Tagovailoa, showing no signs of his surgically repaired ankle that knocked him out of the SEC Championship victory over Georgia, finished 24-of-27 for 318 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I can’t say if I felt better out there or if I was the same,’’ said Tagovailoa, the Orange Bowl’s offensive MOP. “I think we’re continuing to make progress with getting better, going to rehab; 24-hour treatment protocol is still in the line for us now. We’re trying to get better and prepare for Clemson.’’
After a lethargic start, Murray displayed what earned him the program’s seventh Heisman Trophy and second consecutive following Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, in completing 19-of-37 for 308 yards and two touchdowns to go with a game-high 109 rushing yards with another touchdown.
“You can’t go down 21-0 against teams like that,’’ said Murray, who became the first quarterback to rush for 100 yards or more against Alabama in the Saban 12-season era. “Early in the first half, we had jitters from not playing in almost a month.
“You can’t even look at the scoreboard. It is what it is. We knew we had to go out there and fight and that’s exactly what we did.’’
In the second half, Murray repeatedly found sophomore receiver CeeDee Lamb, who snared eight receptions for 109 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown. However, Alabama contained junior receiver Marquise Brown to no catches. Brown, who is nicknamed Hollywood because he grew up in nearby Hollywood, Fla., was hampered by a lack of conditioning since injuring his foot in the Big 12 championship.
Alabama improved to 6-4 in games hosted by the Orange Bowl, where the Crimson Tide has secured national titles in 1964 and in the BCS National Championship in 2012. Alabama downed Nebraska 39-28 in the 1966 Orange Bowl for the ’65 crown, and Notre Dame 42-14 in the 2013 BCS National Championship hosted by the Orange Bowl for the 2012 title. They also were voted 1964 champions in an era when National Champions were determined prior to bowl games, and then lost to Texas, 21-17, in the 1965 Orange Bowl.
Saban and the Crimson Tide also love South Florida and the friendly confines of Hard Rock Stadium as the 2013 BCS National Championship was their 15th national title. Hard Rock will be site of the 2021 CFP championship game.
“The city of Miami, the Orange Bowl folks, everyone involved in this game was first class in every way,’’ Saban said. “We had great accommodations at the Intercontinental. People did a great job for us in terms of a practice facility. There’s not one thing I would say that I was disappointed in any way shape or form. The hospitality was wonderful.’’
Oklahoma, who has to consider Miami, a balmy 77 degrees at kickoff, its second home behind chilly Norman, dropped to 12-9 in its record 21st appearance in games hosted by the Orange Bowl. The Sooners have experienced both heartbreak and glory in South Florida since their OB debut in 1939 going 3-3 in national championship games, in addition to defeating Maryland twice, once as a pre-bowl champion (1956) and once when Maryland was the pre-bowl champion (1954). Alabama, behind Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, also topped Oklahoma 17-0 in their only other Orange Bowl matchup in 1963.
Among other Orange Bowl appearances, Oklahoma, which this year was making its third CFP appearance, fell to Clemson in the 2015 Orange Bowl CFP semifinal. It also won its seventh and last national championship in the 2001 Orange Bowl after its 13-2 snuffing of Florida State.
“It’s not the result we wanted or expected,’’ Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “It was a tale of two different games for us. The start of the game -- give Alabama credit, they’re a really good football team. They made a run on us there early. We had a hard time breaking their streak of momentum. Until the last run at the very end I felt like we were going to win the football game, despite going down 28-0. We’ve been here with way less time and still found a way to come back before. We trailed in 7-8-9 ballgames this year and found a way to win all of them.
“After that we outscored them by 17 the rest of the way so we played much closer to the way we’re capable of in the last three quarters. Unfortunately, we just dug ourselves too deep of a hole.’’
The Nos. 1 and 2 offenses in the nations combined for no turnovers and 999 yards, with Alabama amassing 528 yards while scoring six touchdowns in seven red-zone attempts.
However, Alabama’s fourth-ranked defense held Oklahoma to 34 points, the Sooners’ second lowest output this season with only a 28-21 victory over Army on Sept. 22 lower. The Sooners’ 10 points at halftime was their lowest first-half total since scoring 10 points in a 42-35 win over Kansas State on Oct. 21, 2017.
“It was definitely a challenge for me and the DBs,’’ said Alabama sophomore safety Xavier McKinney, the Defensive MOP of the game with four tackles and four pass breakups. “I thought we did a great job of containing and playing man and keeping everybody defended.
“It was definitely hard to keep [Murray] in the box and keep him from scrambling, but he’s a great quarterback.’’
Trailing 31-10, Oklahoma took the second-half kickoff and began to wear down Alabama’s vaunted fourth-ranked defense, as Murray and Kennedy Brooks took turns piling up yards during a 14-play march. However, a dropped pass on third down by Brown forced Riley to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Austin Siebert, who set an NCAA record with a career 499 points.
Alabama’s offense was stymied only because an exquisite 30-yard pass and catch to Jerry Jeudy was overturned by replay after Parnell Motley caused him to juggle the ball out of bounds. The Alabama faithful serenaded the decision with a chorus of boos.
A scrambling Murray unleashed a 49-yard bomb into the arms of freshman receiver Charleston Rambo to turn a would-be rout into an interesting 31-20 affair after three quarters.
It was the Alabama offense that sealed the deal early in the fourth quarter with a 29-yard reception by Devonta Smith moving the chains. Tagovailoa capped off the 87-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown to Smith and a 38-20 cushion.
Murray, a two-sport star who was the ninth overall pick by the Oakland A’s in last summer’s Major League Baseball draft, was knocked from the game after he was driven into the turf by Alabama nose guard Quinnen Williams. He returned one play later and engineered another long 80-yard drive that resulted in a 10-yard touchdown reception to Lamb, once again slicing the deficit to 11, 38-27, with 8:31 left.
An onside kick was recovered by Alabama’s Keaton Anderson and Tagovailoa took advantage of prime field position, capping off a 46-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jeudy for a secure 45-27 lead with 6:08 remaining. Jeudy, the Biletnikoff Award recipient who attended nearby Deerfield Beach High, finished with four catches for 73 yards.
The Madden-like video game continued as the ever-elusive Murray and OU rambled 74 yards, with Murray scampering in from 8 yards to draw to 45-34 with 4:23 left. Three times the Sooners came within 11 points, but never could get any closer.
“It was no surprise to me they came back in the game. I kept telling my players on the sideline we have to keep playing, keep grinding, got to play 60 minutes,’’ Saban said. “This team is very capable. … When you play against an offensive team that can score very quickly all parts of your team has to continue to play well. We had one lull in the game once we got ahead 28-0.’’
Another failed onside kick enabled the Crimson Tide as Damien Harris (2 touchdowns and 48 yards) and Josh Jacobs (98 rushing yards and 158 combined yards) chewed up the remaining 4:23 with Tagovailoa taking a knee at OU’s 2-yard line.
“I approach this game like I approach every game,’’ Jacobs said. “When I see an opportunity to score I try my best to score.’’
The confetti rained down; “Sweet Home Alabama” was blaring from the scoreboard speakers, and soon a smiling Saban was tossing oranges from the Orange Bowl trophy.
“It was more fun throwing the oranges,’’ said Saban, who earlier spiked his headset in anger after a series of penalties forced him to settle for a field goal. “My son was young and playing junior high basketball. He got mad in a game and I gave him a lecture, he and Kristen both, about not showing their emotions, keeping their cool and their response to me was, and, ‘how many headsets have you broken?’”
On the first play from scrimmage, Tagovailoa hit Smith in stride over the middle for a 50-yard gain. Six plays later, including a replay review which overturned an Alabama fumble on the 1-yard line, Harris plunged in for a quick 7-0 lead in just 3:06.
On Oklahoma’s first offensive series, Alabama’s fourth-ranked defense demonstrated why it has given up just 14.8 points per game with back-to-back sacks of Murray by Anfernee Jennings followed by a vicious blindside hit from Christian Miller.
On Alabama’s second series, the Crimson Tide marched 55 yards on eight plays in 3:57 with a perfectly placed 10-yard pass from Tagovailoa to sophomore receiver Henry Riggs III, who despite being blanketed by cornerback Tre Brown somehow held on while keeping his feet in bounds in the back of the end zone. Joseph Bulovas’ point after made it 14-zip and the Tide was rolling.
Another defensive stop by Alabama set up a third consecutive touchdown drive, this time a 5-play, 61-yard trek, ending in Harris’ second 1-yard TD plunge for a 21-0 lead. The key play of the drive was a 40-yard strike in to the hands of Jeudy.
At the tail end of the first quarter Saban inserted junior quarterback Jalen Hurts, hero of the SEC title game, in the middle of the third touchdown drive as a change of pace. Tagovailoa, who played a flawless first quarter, hitting 8-of-8 for 157 yards and a touchdown, began the second quarter on Oklahoma’s 48 after a failed fourth-down conversion by Murray.
Tagovailoa capped off Alabama’s fourth consecutive touchdown drive with a pass in the flat to Jacobs, who bowled over safety Robert Barnes on his way to a 27-yard touchdown. A woozy Barnes was helped off the field as Alabama opened up a 28-0 cushion.
Murray finally displayed his Heisman skills with two consecutive deep passes worth a combined 76 yards to Carson Meier and then Lamb down to Alabama’s 2-yard line. Running back Trey Sermon took a direct snap and strolled in to give Sooners fans something to cheer, despite a 28-7 deficit.
On the next series, Tagovailoa finally missed on two passes and Oklahoma made its first defensive stop of the game.
Riding a momentum turn, Murray hit a big fourth down-and-2 completion to Lamb that eventually set up a 26-yard field goal by Austin Seibert to slice the Sooners’ deficit to 28-10 with 7:30 left in the first half.
However, Alabama continued to shred Oklahoma’s 96th-ranked (points allowed) defense, mixing runs and short passes to the Sooners’ 15-yard line. A series of three motion penalties on Alabama caused an enraged Saban to spike his headset and have to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Bulovas for a 31-10 lead at halftime. The Sooners entered the game giving up an average of 32.4 points per game.
Tagovailoa (15-for-17) and Hurts (1-for-1) combined to complete 16 of 18 for 234 yards in the opening half.
Cue the always entertaining Capital One halftime show, featuring Carol City native and platinum hip-hop artist Flo Rida, whose trademark hit song ‘Low’ also summarized the Sooners’ low first-half output. Alabama outgained OU 318 yards to 191 yards and converted 5-of-7 third downs, while holding Oklahoma to 0-for-5 on third-down attempts in the first half. The Sooners entered the game with a dismal red-zone defense in which they allowed 40 of 47 touchdowns (85 percent). Alabama was a perfect 4-for-4, scoring touchdowns on their first four forays into Oklahoma’s red zone.
This is the fifth season since the inception of the College Football Playoff system and Alabama will play Clemson for the fourth time, third in the championship game. In the second CFP final (2015-16), Alabama eked out a 45-40 victory over the Tigers, but Clemson took the 2016-17 rematch 35-31. In last year’s Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal, Alabama shut down Clemson 24-6, before edging Georgia in a 26-23 overtime thriller for the Crimson Tide’s 17th overall (including the Poll system years) national championship.
The legend of Saban continues to grow as he bids for his seventh national championship, including five with Alabama and one with LSU. Saban is carving a spot on the Mount Rushmore of coaches, alongside former Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant, NFL icons Bill Belichick and Vince Lombardi, NBA legends Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson, UCLA basketball’s John Wooden, Connecticut’s women’s hoops Gene Auriemma, NHL’s Scotty Bowman and Yankees skipper Casey Stengel.
Saban improved to 2-1 against Oklahoma, who beat him and Alabama 45-31 in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. An LSU-led Saban team edged Oklahoma 21-14 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl.
Alabama is already in the conversation as the greatest dynasty in sports, joining the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, New England Patriots and New York Islanders. Next week’s championship game may solidify its status.
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