Rapid Reaction: Alabama outlasts Oklahoma in Orange Bowl to set up Round 4 with Clemson
Ready for Round 4?
College football’s heavyweights, Alabama and Clemson, menacingly took care of the preliminaries Saturday, setting up their fourth consecutive meeting in the College Football Playoff. This will be the third time confetti falls on the winner. They split their first two title game matchups in 2015 and 2016, and Alabama won their semifinal battle last year.
After No. 2 Clemson punched its ticket by pounding No. 3 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl semifinal Saturday, No. 1 Alabama held serve against No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl later Saturday night.
The Tide, continuing a season-long theme, pounced from the opening play on their way to a 45-34 victory.
Oklahoma won the toss but deferred. Alabama’s offense defers to few, if any. On its opening play, Tua Tagovailoa faked a handoff and hit DeVonta Smith for a 50-yard strike. Six plays and a critical overturn later, Damien Harris bulled over from the 1-yard line for a 7-0 lead. Harris lost a fumble on the previous play, but replay overturned the call, ruling he was down.
Whatever hope some had that the Sooners could engage in a start-to-finish shootout evaporated on Oklahoma’s first possession, when it became clear that Heisman winner Kyler Murray hadn’t seen a defense like this since he left Texas A&M for the Big 12.
Alabama sacked Murray twice on OU’s opening drive, leading to a punt.
Eight plays — and another critical call — later, the Tide led 14-0. This time the call in dispute was Henry Ruggs’ contested catch from Tagovailoa in the back of the end zone. Ruggs clearly got his foot in, but the ball appeared to move after he landed out of bounds. Replay confirmed it was a touchdown catch.
Unsaid but just as obvious, Alabama confirmed it was headed back to the National Championship Game.
It was the perfect start from the perfect team. And it continued. Tagovailoa’s next throw went for 40 yards to Jerry Judy, a precise dart delivered between two closing defenders. Harris capped that drive with a short run to make it 21-0.
The first quarter wasn’t over. The suspense was.
The Tide scored again the fourth time it touched the ball, this time a special delivery to his home state from Josh Jacobs, who is from Tulsa. Jacobs caught a swing pass from Tagovailoa and turned upfield. He lowered his shoulder and ran over an Oklahoma defender to make it 28-0.
To that point, Alabama had more touchdowns — 4 on 4 possessions — than Oklahoma had first downs. The Tide had outgained the nation’s top offense a staggering 239 yards to 24. Murray was 1-for-5. Tagovailoa, runner-up in the Heisman race, was 9-for-9 for 184 yards and 2 TDs. Yes, the ankle was fine. That left arm even better.
Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit tried to be respectful; more than 43 minutes of playing time remained. But to that point, the game we all wanted — Alabama vs. Clemson IV — was the only one worth discussing.
Credit the Sooners for making it interesting and preventing a blowout.
Murray eventually made plays. Oklahoma eventually found the end zone. Three times they crept within 11, but Bama answered. When Murray hit Charleston Rambo with a 49-yard strike to draw within 31-20, it was the closest the Sooners had been since Alabama’s second possession. Tagovailoa answered that score with his 3rd TD pass, this one to Smith to make the margin 18 again. Murray tossed his 2nd TD pass to make it 38-27, but Tagovailoa responded with his 4th TD pass, a slant to Jeudy to extend the lead to 18 again. Tagovailoa, who threw for 318 yards, finished with more TD passes than incompletions (3).
Back and forth it went in an entertaining second half, the teams combining for 28 points in the fourth quarter alone. The problem was, for the first half, Oklahoma didn’t look like the offense that entered the Orange Bowl as the highest-scoring unit in the country.
Alabama looked every bit like the defending national champion.
Anthem to Gatorade bath with a few hiccups in between, the night belonged to Alabama.
Jan. 7, in what is becoming an annual Playoff date with Clemson, we’ll find out if a sixth national title under Nick Saban will as well.