ATLANTA – When talking about Alabama’s 24-7 win over Washington Saturday in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, which pushed the Crimson Tide to within one victory of their fifth national championship in eight years, where do you start?
Well, you start with defense, of course.
But exactly where on defense?
You could start with outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, whose interception and touchdown earned him the game’s Most Valuable Player award.
Or you could start with inside linebacker Reuben Foster, who made the defensive call before the snap to let Anderson take pass coverage.
Or you could start with cornerback Anthony Averett stripping the ball from Washington’s John Ross, when the Huskies where clicking on offense.
“If you’re going to talk about the defense,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, “you almost can’t talk about an individual player, because we played a lot of split-safety coverages tonight that we knew we had to play to take away their (run-pass option) and the vertical passing game and No. 1 (Ross), who’s a big-play player.
“So that starts with the guys up front being able to stop the run when you don’t have an extra safety in the box all the time, which we hardly ever did. ... The front guys did a really good job of allowing us to play that way, and they back-end guys did a really good job of executing what we needed to do to take those big plays out of the game. They also, the front guys, affected the quarterback, which I think was huge in the game as well.”
You could even start with someone who didn’t even play Saturday. You could start with safety Eddie Jackson, whose college career ended prematurely in October when he suffered a fractured leg on a punt return against Texas A&M. Jackson wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune, which was published Friday. Saban referenced the article a couple times in his post-game press conference, citing the final paragraph in particular.
“When you’re on the field on Saturday, look at the man next to you. Look at how hard he’s going. If you’re not trying to match his effort and then surpass it, then you need to pick it up a notch. This is the moment you’ve been working for since you got that first letter postmarked Tuscaloosa in your mailbox. Remember the excitement you felt that day, and let it out. You’re doing it, man. You’re here.”
That’s exactly why Alabama is 14-0 and will play for the national championship in Tampa on Jan. 9. This machine Saban has built is predicated on the team being stronger than any individuals
“I thought Eddie’s article that he wrote really epitomizes the team chemistry that this team has, how they really sort of care about each other and everybody tries to help each other and have each other’s back, support each other in doing the right things,” Saban said. “I think that kind of leadership, that kind of togetherness is something that helped us sustain the kind of effort that we needed in what was a really tough game.”
After Jackson was injured, his teammates were devastated. Especially his defensive teammates.
Said Anderson: “I actually asked Coach could I wear his number, because I was really hurt about that, that he couldn’t finish the year how he wanted to.”
Saturday’s win was so much like many of the previous 13 wins. The Tide fell behind 7-0 early. But this is what Alabama does. It has been the Tide’s M.O. all season. Their opponents scored first in six of their 13 games in the regular season and in the SEC Championship Game against Florida.
And so it was again Saturday. Washington scored first when the Huskies drove 64 yards on their second possession, moving down the field with surprising ease. Even if it wasn’t necessarily caused for alarm, this much was clear. The Tide was facing the best quarterback it has seen all year in Jake Browning.
He entered the game with 6,235 passing yards and 58 touchdown passes for the past two seasons. With 42 touchdown passes coming into the game, Browning is just the third Pac-12 quarterback ever to throw 40 or more touchdown passes in a season. The other two – Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Cal’s Jared Goff – were taken second and first overall, respectively, in the past two NFL drafts.
What’s not as widely known is that Browning can also run. His 13-yard run on third-and-6 is what sparked the drive. That was followed by a 20-yard catch and run by Myles Gaskin. Four plays later, Browning threw a strike to Dante Pettis in the back right corner of the end zone.
The Huskies served notice they would not be intimidated by Alabama’s dominance. Even after Bama tied it 7-7, the Huskies started moving the ball again. They moved 26 yards in four plays, then Ross took a quick pass from Browning and bolted seven yards.
That’s when the game turned on the first of two huge defensive players. That’s when Alabama showed why this team is easily the best in the country – and arguably one of the best of all time.
Averett stripped the ball from Ross and Allen recovered it. The turnover resulted in a field goal and a clear momentum shift.
The second huge play came toward the end of the first half. Browning caught a break on the previous play when Marlon Humphrey dropped an interception that would have been a certain touchdown.
Foster recognized Washington’s formation and communicated to Anderson that he was going to blitz. Browning saw Foster and threw a desperate pass to running back Lavon Coleman. Anderson read it all the way. He intercepted the pass, shoved Coleman to the turf and scored with ease.
Basically, ball game.
Oh, sure. Any team good enough to win the Pac 12 would be good enough to come back from 10 points down.
But not against Alabama. The Tide dominated the rest of the game. Browning had completed 11 of his first 13 passes. He completed just nine of his next 25 passes for 72 yards.
As much as Alabama has accomplished, the big prize still lies ahead.
“It’s a little bit like running a marathon,” Saban said, “You get at the 20-mile mark and you still feel like you’re only halfway there. But we got more miles to go, and these guys are very committed to it.”