Tuesday, January 10, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Clemson clearly better than Bama

Leader sports editor

Most people agree that Monday’s NCAA football national championship game was the best since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series almost two decades ago, and maybe one of the best ever. It’s hard to argue about that when there were three touchdowns in the final 4:38, including the game winner with one second left to play.

What’s not agreed upon is that the best team won. It’s a frivolous argument because it doesn’t matter. Clemson is the national champion despite fan and media pontifications. But let there be no doubt, the Tigers were the better team.

That last touchdown, though controversial, was justice. It meant the better team won the game and the national championship. Alabama’s first touchdown was awarded, rather than earned, and Clemson battled through a -2 turnover deficit. The Tigers outgained Alabama by 135 yards (511-376), nearly doubled the Tide in first downs 31-16, and even did the unprecedented and nearly unthinkable. They controlled the football, keeping possession for 34:44 to Alabama’s 25:16.

Clemson also out gained Alabama in last year’s championship loss, but a -1 turnover deficit and a 95-yard kickoff return given up in the fourth quarter spelled a 45-40 defeat. Special teams is part of the game, and while offenses and defenses were nearly even, Alabama was better on special teams, and that was the difference last year.

This year, the Tigers didn’t finesse their way to a high-scoring victory. They beat Alabama at its own game. They kept it conservative while physically whipping the Tide from the opening kick, and then cruised through Bama’s defense for three easy touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

The last time a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team lost a two-touchdown or more lead was when it blew a 24-0 lead to Cam Newton and Auburn in the 2010 Iron Bowl. Monday night was the first time a Saban-coached Tide squad ever lost a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Even going into the final 15 minutes, it felt like Clemson should win. It seemed as if the Tigers were making mistakes that stopped themselves, while the Tide offense was fighting and struggling for every first down.

There were mistakes by Bama, big ones. There was one key dropped pass on third and long, and the Tide were called for nine penalties for 82 yards, compared to just three for 35 against Clemson.

That takes us back to two of Clemson’s three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Should they have been penalties?

Yes, and then no.

Clemson’s first short-yardage “pick play” should have been a penalty. The slot receiver engaged the Alabama defender and pushed him backwards into wideout Mike Williams’ defender.

That play, however, was only on second and goal from the 4. Clemson may very well have scored anyway.

The game winner was not a penalty, and was the perfect call for the situation. It appeared as though Saban was implementing a wily old strategy to just tackle all of Clemson’s receivers.

It would have resulted in a penalty and moved the ball half the distance to the goal, but it would’ve left Clemson with time for just one more play, and coach Dabo Swinney with a decision to make between going for the win, or kicking a field goal and playing overtime.

Instead, Clemson anticipated the defense and called “the rub route.”

Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey himself engaged Clemson receiver Artavis Scott, with the apparent purpose to just tackle him and not let him catch the ball.

Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow made that impossible for his man, Tony Brown. His sharply diagonal route forced Brown to run around the Humphrey-Scott collision, which rendered him incapable of covering Renfrow, who was wide open for the touchdown.

In short, Saban was out-foxed by “The Dab man”.

It was a perfect ending for how the game played out. There was one matchup that still seemed even, and that was coaching. The last play was one side outcoaching the other, and the best team, in every aspect, won.