The Associated PressNEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nick Saban is back in his comfort zone.
Let others run up the points. He’ll take a defensive slugfest every time.
Especially when it gives Alabama another shot at a national title.
In a game where every yard was a struggle, the Crimson Tide defenders took matters into their own hands. They accounted for a pair of touchdowns just 13 seconds apart in the third quarter to turn an offensive slog into a 24-6 rout of defending national champion Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game Monday night.
“This game was about our identity as a team,” Saban said. “I don’t think anybody would doubt our relentless attitude out there. We had a warrior-like mentality.”
He was clearly pleased.
Sure, it was quite a contrast to the first two meetings in the Alabama-Clemson trilogy, both high-scoring classics with the national title on the line, not to mention the Rose Bowl semifinal that preceded it. Georgia knocked off Oklahoma in a double-overtime thriller that wasn’t decided until Alabama was on its second possession in the Big Easy.
There would be no drama in the nightcap. With Deshaun Watson off to the NFL, top-ranked Clemson (12-2) simply had no answer for the Tide’s latest group of defensive standouts, setting up an all-Southeastern Conference showdown for the national title — with Saban matched against his former defensive coordinator, Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
“I’m proud of the job he’s done,” Saban said. “I’m sure it will be a great football game.”
Leading only 10-6 after a turnover to start the second half handed Clemson a field goal, fourth-ranked Alabama (12-1) quickly snuffed out any thoughts of a repeat title for the Tigers.
It began with 140-kilogram defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne picking off a wobbly pass after besieged Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant was hit as he threw. Payne rumbled 21 yards on the return, shedding one would-be tackler with a deft open-field move and drawing a 15-yard personal foul penalty when he was finally dragged down with a horse collar tackle.
After Alabama drove to a first down at the Clemson 1, Payne reentered the game — presumably to add another big body for blocking purposes. Instead, he slipped open near the right pylon on a play fake and hauled in a touchdown pass, even managing to get both feet down before the celebration commenced beyond the sideline.
“I’ve got gold hands,” quipped Payne, who was picked as the game’s defensive MVP.
A bit shell-shocked by that turn of events, Clemson was thoroughly demoralized after its 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 TD.
They could’ve called it right then.
“Just incredibly disappointed in our performance,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “But congratulations to Alabama. They were the better team today. No doubt about it.”
Georgia wins 2OT thriller
Meanwhile, Sony Michel burst through the line for a 27-yard touchdown run to give No. 3 Georgia a 54-48 victory against No. 2 Oklahoma, winning the first overtime Rose Bowl and sending the Bulldogs to the College Football Playoff championship game.
Michel, who had a fumble in the fourth quarter returned for a go-ahead Oklahoma touchdown, ran for 181 yards and three scores for the Bulldogs (13-1), but none bigger than the last one in the second overtime.
“I made plays. I gave up plays. My team just had faith in me,” said Michel, who did all that damage on just 11 carries. “That’s what this team is all about. They showed true character today.”
In the final game of his great career, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns, and caught a touchdown pass that gave the Sooners a 17-point lead with 6 seconds left in the first half.