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Red Zone Defense Helps Clemson Over Bama

By Dave Holcomb
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Alabama drove into the red zone four times, and yet, on those four possessions, the Crimson Tide came away with just nine points, including one touchdown.

All four of Clemson’s defensive line starters may hear their name called during the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Many of them, though, could have done that in 2018.

Defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell returned to school for one more year to do one thing -- win a second national championship. That dream came to fruition Monday night.

But not only did Clemson capture that second title in three years, the Tigers did it in blowout fashion, knocking out No. 1 and undefeated Alabama, 44-16, at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

The vaunted Clemson defensive line and Tigers defense didn’t have a dominating performance on the stat sheet. Alabama recorded 443 total yards and showcased a great deal of balance, averaging 8.2 yards per pass and 4.0 yards per carry.

But whenever the Tigers defense needed a big stop, it got it.

Alabama drove into the red zone four times, and yet, on those four possessions, the Crimson Tide came away with just nine points, including one touchdown. Two of those drives ended with a turnover on downs, and Alabama had another drive stall at the Clemson 22-yard line, which ended with an unsuccessful fake field goal attempt.

Even a team like Alabama can’t afford to leave that many points off the board and expect to win a championship game. Then on top of that, the Tigers defense scored on sophomore cornerback A.J. Terrell’s pick-six during Alabama’s first possession.

Maybe that should have foreshadowed to everyone what was about to transpire at Levi Stadium on Monday night. At the very least, it got Alabama chasing the game early.

The Crimson Tide did successfully catch up, though, as they took a 16-14 led early in the second quarter. But kicking a field goal to take that lead was actually the beginning of a dominating night in the red zone for the Clemson defense.

Alabama possessed the ball at the Clemson 2-yard line with first-and-goal and settled for a field goal. The Tigers stuffed Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris for a 1-yard gain on first down, and then Alabama committed a costly false start penalty and moved back to the 6-yard line.

Again, those aren’t mistakes even a team as talented as Alabama can overcome against Clemson. The Tigers didn’t turn the ball over, allowed zero sacks and committed one penalty Monday night.

Clemson didn’t need any help, but after the penalty, the Tigers easily kept the Crimson Tide out of the end zone and forced a field goal attempt.

Not only would Alabama not stiff the end zone again after that, Clemson didn’t allow another point. Meanwhile, the Tigers tallied the final 30 points of the night, scoring on all four of their next four red zone possessions, three of which they punched in for touchdowns.

A year after Jake Fromm came within a few plays of accomplishing this feat, ironically, against Alabama, Trevor Lawrence became only the second true-freshman quarterback and first since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985 to win the National Championship.

Going 20 of 32 for 347 passing yards and three touchdowns, Lawrence won the offensive MVP award. He had plenty of help from fellow freshman Justyn Ross, who recorded six receptions, a couple of which one-handed on key third-down attempts, for 153 yards and a touchdown.

But this night belonged to the Clemson defense, which held Alabama without a point in the final 44 minutes and intercepted Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa twice. Junior Trayvon Mullen recorded the second interception along with six tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss and 1.0 sack. Mullen won the game’s defensive MVP award.

Alabama trailed by 15 at halftime but started the second half with the ball and drove to the Clemson 22-yard line. There, the Crimson Tide miserably failed to run a fake field goal on fourth-and-six. The Tigers saw it coming from a mile away and dropped Alabama holder Mac Jones for a loss.

On its next drive, Alabama drove to the Clemson 14-yard line, but the Tigers stopped Tagovailoa just short on fourth-and-four, forcing a second straight turnover on downs. The next time the Crimson Tide touched the ball, they were down 28.

That ended up being the final deficit, making it the largest loss for Alabama under Nick Saban.

Speaking of Saban, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is now in his company as the only other active FBS coach with multiple titles. This championship is Clemson’s third during the poll era. The Tigers have won two of the last three titles and captured their first championship in 1981.

With the victory, Clemson became the third team with 15 victories in history and the first 15-0 team in college football since the Penn Quakers in 1897. More important than that obscure stat, the Tigers’ senior class matched Alabama’s class in wins (55) and national titles (2) over the last four years.

That should win them a few recruiting battles.

Don’t think for a second this Clemson football program is going anywhere. While Wilkins, Bryant and Ferrell are leaving, offensive stars Lawrence, Ross and sophomore running back Travis Etienne, who rushed for 6.1 yards per carry and two touchdowns, are ready to take over the reigns from the dominant defensive line.

The Tigers are 55-4 since 2015, and they may just be getting warmed up.