NEW ORLEANS — The rubber match of the Alabama-Clemson trilogy was a total dud compared with the teams’ previous two meetings.
Except to the Crimson Tide defense, which will remember it as a thing of beauty.
In a game in which every yard was a struggle, the ‘Bama defenders took matters into their own hands, scoring a pair of touchdowns just 13 seconds apart in the third quarter to turn an offensive slog into a 24-6 vicgory over defending national champion Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game Monday night. The Tide will play No. 3 Georgia in the title game Monday in Atlanta.
It was quite a contrast to their previous two meetings, both high-scoring classics with the national title on the line.
With Deshaun Watson off to the NFL, top-ranked Clemson (12-2) simply had no answer for Nick Saban’s latest group of defensive standouts. The Crimson Tide’s win set up an all-Southeastern Conference showdown for the national title — with Saban matched against his former defensive coordinator, Georgia coach Kirby Smart. Saban will be going for his sixth national title.
Clemson was fortunate to be down only 10-3 at halftime against the fourth-ranked Tide (12-1), and closed the gap with a field goal after Jalen Hurts fumbled on the first play of the second half.
But any thoughts of a Tiger rally were snuffed out by the time the third quarter was done.
It began with 308-pound defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne picking off a wobbly pass, the ball fluttering through the air after besieged Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant was hit as he threw — a familiar sight on this night.
Payne rumbled 21 yards on the return, showing off an impressive open-field move that eluded running back Travis Etienne’s attempted tackle, and drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty when Tremayne Anchrum yanked him down with a horse collar.
After Alabama drove to a first down at the Clemson 1, Payne re-entered the game — presumably to add another big body for blocking purposes. That’s certainly what Clemson was thinking, totally biting when Hurts faked the handoff.
Payne slipped open near the right pylon and hauled in the touchdown pass.
On Clemson’s next offensive play. Bryant’s pass deflected off the hands of Deon Cain and was intercepted by linebacker Mack Wilson, who returned it 18 yards for another touchdown.
Just like that, Alabama had a 24-6 lead.
They could’ve called it right then.
Clemson was held to 188 yards — 260 yards below its season average — and never reached the end zone. Bryant was sacked five times and the Tigers were held to 64 yards on the ground.