Rapid Reaction: Alabama rolls past Kansas State in Sugar Bowl, as Bryce Young wins likely Crimson Tide finale
Will Howard had Kansas State moving on the very 1st drive of the game on Saturday afternoon, but senior all-everything safety Jordan Battle set a defensive tone for the 89th Sugar Bowl in New Orleans with an interception in his final game at Alabama.
It was timely.
And it was telling.
Alabama followed Battle’s galvanizing pick with a dud of a 3-and-out, gaining 0 yards, and this point was driven home further — that points would probably be at a premium in a battle of defenses that both ranked in the top 20 in the country in points allowed per game, with the Crimson Tide 9th (18 points) and the Wildcats 17th (20.1).
But a 41-yard field goal by Kansas State’s Ty Zentner in the 1st quarter was a small breakthrough, and then came a much bigger one by the smallest player on the field. After a James Burnip punt pinned the 9th-ranked Wildcats back to their 12-yard line, Deuce Vaughn introduced his dazzling, 5-foot-6 self to the country for those who didn’t already know about him, bursting through the line and blazing away on an 88-yard touchdown gallop that gave K-State a 10-0 lead with 3:26 left in the 1st.
It was the longest run of Vaughn’s stellar junior season — and his exceptional career — it sent the royal purple and white-clad fans at the Superdome into a frenzy, and it finally woke up the 5th-ranked Crimson Tide.
And once Bama rose from the dead, it simply never stopped. The Crimson Tide erupted for 35 unanswered points after falling into that 10-0 hole and answered all the questions about their motivation level on a smaller, non-Playoff stage with tenacity and authority, beating down Big 12 champion Kansas State 45-20.
The Tide improved to 10-7 all-time in the Sugar Bowl, with most of the previous ones having everything at stake, unlike Saturday. But that didn’t matter in the end, especially to the legendary leader of the offense who decided to come back for 1 more go-around in an Alabama jersey.
In what almost certainly was his last game in an Alabama uniform, Bryce Young got to work, and he did it in a hurry. First, it was a 69-yard drive capped by a 6-yard touchdown flip to freshman Isaiah Bond on 3rd-and-goal, which sent a message as the 1st quarter ended that Bama was done pushing the snooze button for the 11 a.m. local time kickoff.
Bama’s defense followed with a 3-and-out. It was probably inspired by the Tide touchdown and definitely motivated by what Vaughn had done to it moments earlier. Suddenly, Young had the ball back in his hands and so did junior Jahmyr Gibbs, whose 60-yard catch-and-run on 3rd-and-10 keyed the touchdown on the previous drive.
With Young and star linebacker Will Anderson Jr. donning the crimson and white for almost certainly the last time in their phenomenal careers, Saturday was probably Gibbs’ Alabama curtain call, too, after only 1 season, and he wanted to make it count. Gibbs ran for 14 yards combined on the 1st 3 plays of the next drive, setting up Young’s 47-yard strike to the Tide’s other highly acclaimed 2022 transfer, wide receiver Jermaine Burton, who was tackled at the K-State 2-yard line.
Two plays later, Young found senior tight end Cameron Latu for a 1-yard touchdown and suddenly Bama had a 14-10 lead early in the 2nd quarter. The Tide were trying really hard not to be the 1st Alabama team since 2010 to lose 3 games in a season, but the Wildcats were trying really, really hard to be the team that finally handed Bama that dastardly 3rd loss.
Alabama (11-2) had to dig in on this New Year’s Eve afternoon against those Big 12 champions who, oh by the way, knocked off TCU in overtime in the Big 12 Championship Game 4 weeks earlier. The same TCU team that was about to play Michigan in the 1st of 2 College Football Playoff semifinals on Saturday. This Sugar Bowl thing was never going to be an easy dynamic for the Tide, not in the least, especially with many wondering about that aforementioned motivation level for Bama considering it wasn’t playing in a Playoff game this time of year — for a change.
Kansas State (10-4) smelled blood in this spot, and Chris Klieman, its head coach who has his own championship pedigree from his days at the FCS level with North Dakota State, was going all out to beat the guy on the other sideline with all those FBS titles. After Bama took that 14-10 lead, K-State didn’t blink. The Wildcats embarked on a ridiculous, 18-play, 73-yard drive that swallowed up 10 minutes, 30 seconds of clock and had the Tide teetering.
Three times Kansas State went for it on 4th down in Alabama territory during the mammoth drive. The 1st 2 times, the Cats converted. But the 3rd time, on 4th-and-goal from the Tide 2-yard line, Bama finally pushed back. Anderson fell down in coverage on Ben Sinnott, but Howard’s pass to the front-right corner of the end zone was off target, the 14-10 lead stood and, as it turned out, the Crimson Tide weren’t content going to halftime with just that.
With only 1:01 left on the clock and sitting at their own 2, Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien threw caution to the wind and went for the jugular. And off Alabama went on a stunning 98-yard drive in just 7 plays that took 51 seconds, capped by Young’s 3rd touchdown pass of the half, a 12-yard scoring strike to Burton that made it 21-10 at halftime.
It was a 14-point swing that felt like much more than that.
Young had started slowly on Saturday, the final day of his stellar and courageous collegiate career, but boy was he picking up steam.
And the long halftime didn’t slow him down.
Showing his cut-throat mentality with a slight whiff of desperation, Klieman tried an onside kick on the opening kickoff of the 2nd half, but Bama was ready for it. Even worse for K-State, the Tide wasted no time using the short field to get the ball in the end zone again. Needing just 3 plays, Young capped the short drive with his 4th touchdown pass of the day, a 32-yarder to Ja’Corey Brooks to make it 28-10.
And then it only got worse for the Wildcats on the 3rd play of their next possession, when Brian Branch intercepted Howard’s pass to give the Tide an even shorter field. This time, it only took 1 play for Bama to make K-State pay, with Jase McClellan’s 17-yard touchdown burst suddenly giving Bama a 35-10 bulge.
For the Tide, it was 2 TDs in exactly 2 minutes of the 3rd quarter, and the separation was established for the rest of the afternoon.
But they weren’t done, and neither was Young. He was putting his final stamp on things before being swallowed up by the NFL Draft process, and he was already making the Alabama fan base miss him. After the Wildcats kicked an inconsequential field goal, Young used yet another short field to his advantage, finding Kobe Prentice for a 47-yard touchdown connection on the final play of the 3rd quarter to give the Tide a 42-13 lead.
There was 1 full quarter to play, but the game was over, and Young had put the finishing touches on his Alabama legacy with a virtuoso performance. After starting the game 1 for 4 amid Kansas State’s early adrenaline rush, Young was 15 for 20 with 5 touchdown passes — to 5 different receivers — and 0 interceptions. Young finished 15 for 21 with 321 yards passing, and his decision along with Anderson to not opt out of the Sugar Bowl a few weeks ago looked pretty darn good.
Make that amazingly good — and heroic. It will only improve his draft stock, if that’s even possible.
And for Crimson Tide fans, they got the ending they wanted for the beloved Young, even if it wasn’t the snapshot with a national championship trophy in his clutches.
After Will Reichard booted a 49-yard field goal, the final make of his own stellar Tide career, Young trotted out for 1 last moment on Bama’s next possession. He handed the ball off to Roydell Williams, and that was it. Young shook hands with his offensive teammates and glided off the field the same way he glided through defenses for the past 2 seasons.
He got the obligatory thunderous ovation, Jalen Milroe took over, and Bryce Young’s Alabama career was over.
So, the Tide weren’t the national champions on Saturday. They were the Sugar Bowl champs, and that’s still pretty good.
And while Vaughn piled up 133 yards, 88 of them were on that 1st-quarter burst that was a footnote by the time the final seconds ticked off.
Turns out, points were only at a premium for 1 team on the final day of 2022 in the Big Easy, and it wasn’t Alabama.