MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It was wacky, weird, and unsuccessful. We’re talking about the failed fake field goal attempt in the third quarter of Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson. But did it cost Alabama the game?
Facing a 31-16 halftime deficit was Nick Saban’s top-ranked Crimson Tide. It was still a two-score game, but what transpired after the break between halves may have sent the game spiraling for the Tide.
Alabama received the second half kick and put together a solid drive that consisted of 13 plays and consumed 5 minutes and 13 seconds off the third quarter clock. It was shaping up to be a strong drive to counter Clemson’s lethal strikes in the first half, until it wasn’t.
The 13th play of Alabama’s opening drive of the second half left everyone inside of Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium and everyone watching from their home, bar of choice, or place of choice scratching their heads.
What happened? The Crimson Tide lined up in field goal formation to kick on 4th and 6, but they didn’t kick the field goal. Instead, third-string quarterback Mac Jones took the snap, Joseph Bulovas looked like he was going through with the motions to kick the field goal but instead started running as if he were a blocker. Jones took the ball and tried to follow a lead block into the (non-existent) hole and was instead met with resistance from Clemson’s Nyles Pinckney and stopped well short of the line to gain.
It looked like this:
After the play, there was a shot over to the sideline of an unhappy Saban with coaches appearing to explain what happened. Saban spoke after the game on the call, taking the blame.
“I think it was a poor decision on my part not to kick the field goal on the first drive of the second half. We thought we had a really really good fake and somebody didn’t block the guy they were supposed to block, so it didn’t work, so it was a bad call," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. "It’s always that way.”
So the big question is: Did the failed fake field goal cost Alabama the game?
Let’s break this down into parts. There’s a ‘yes,’ a short version of ‘no’ and then a longer version of ‘no.’
Let’s start with the ‘yes.’
Yes the fake field goal cost Alabama the game, because one could argue the momentum Alabama had built on their first possession of the second half was all but lost on the failed fake field goal play which maybe also ended up epitomizing the way Alabama looked all night. They just couldn’t get it done offensively and looked bad when it counted the most. Clemson would score two more times to make it 44-16 and stop the Tide’s run at back-to-back championships.
The short ‘no’ answer looks like this: No. Clemson scored 44 points to Alabama’s 16 and that was just one play. Also, that kick, **should** Bulovas had made the kick, would have only made the score 31-19 and Clemson still would score 44 points to win. Clemson was simply dominant all night and would have likely continued to dominate even after the field goal.
A longer version of ‘no’ trickles into different cracks of Alabama’s performance caused by Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and can be broken into three parts - one being another human being.
“We had some issues. We couldn’t get off the field on third down, we gave up a couple of big-time explosive days on third down,” said Saban.
To say the Tide had issues defensively is an understatement but also a testament to Clemson's offense.
“I mean they were like 8-of-11 [on third down] at one point in time, 10 for 15 for the game, and we gave up big plays not just first downs,” said Saban.
After going three-and-out to open the game, the Tigers punted only two more times the entire game - one of those times coming when they were already up 44-16 with 11:12 remaining in the fourth.
On Clemson’s second offensive possession, with the score tied at 7, Lawrence sprang into action for the Tigers. Clemson was staring at a 3rd and 14 at its own 21 and about to punt the ball back to Alabama when what Saban called a “busted coverage” on a three-deep zone concept allowed Lawrence to drop a pass over the back end of the secondary and into the arms of Tee Higgins. Higgins turned the catch into a 62-yard gain before being tackled at the Alabama 17. Travis Etienne scored on a 17-yard touchdown tun on the next play to give Clemson a lead.
Clemson’s second offensive scoring drive was catalyzed by a kickoff out of bounds following an Alabama field goal. A defensive pass interference moved the ball to midfield and then Clemson was within scoring range the very next play. But still, leading 16-14 at the time (the second quarter), Alabama had a chance to force a Clemson field goal. Facing 3rd and 5 from the Alabama 19, Lawrence hit Higgins on a crossing route underneath. A small breakdown by the Alabama secondary allowed Higgins to pickup 14 yards which would lead to a Clemson touchdown to recapture the lead at 21-16.
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s second interception of the game would set up Clemson for their third score. Tagovailoa’s interception was returned to the Alabama 47 and within two plays, the Tigers were at least within field goal range. The Crimson Tide was still able to force a 3rd and 7 at the Alabama 31, but another blown assignment by the secondary allowed a 26-yard pickup by Amari Rodgers, on the completion from Lawrence, and Clemson was knocking on the door of another touchdown. The Tigers would score again and gain a field goal afterwards to go up 31-16 at the break.
That - not being able to get off the field on third down - was an all-caps GIGANTIC problem for the Tide all night. But the defense wasn’t the only phase of Alabama’s game failing to execute.
“We had plenty of opportunities to score offensively, had the ball at the 1-yard line, we get a penalty, end up kicking a field goal," said Saban. “Have it down there a couple more times, do a fake field goal and go for it on fourth down and don’t make it, get stopped on the goal line on the 1-yard line on another time.”
Within Alabama’s first three drives of the second half, they had a chance to score three touchdowns, but were stopped on downs twice at the 1. The other miscue was being stopped on the fake field goal. A potential of 21 points were left on the board which would have had the game go very differently.
“I just think we came out and we were killing ourselves. We shot ourselves in the foot, you know, by me throwing the interception for a touchdown and then, you know, not finishing drives the way we wanted to,” said Tagovailoa.
“Execute" was a word said a lot after the game in Alabama’s postgame presser. Alabama didn’t do it when it mattered and Clemson did.
The two teams were nearly evenly matched in total yards - Clemson had 482 to Alabama’s 443 - but execution was what it came down to most.
Lastly, it wasn’t just mental errors that killed the Tide defense on those third downs, but an actual human being. Alabama native Justyn Ross is only a freshman at Clemson, but he’s for sure going to torment defensive backs for at least two more seasons. He was also a target on Alabama’s radar of recruits before eventually settling on the Tigers.
Monday night against Alabama, Ross made three of the biggest catches of the game. Two came on the same possession and required only one hand.
Ross was deadly. His highlight reel featured a one-handed catch on the sideline on 3rd and 12 for 35 yards. It was an unguardable play in which Ross reached behind his body to haul in the grab. Ross then made maybe an even more impressive catch just three plays later. This time, Ross bobbled the pass thrown by Lawrence and still brought the pass down with one hand, all while working the sideline before going out of bounds for a 17-yard pickup. Ross’s two catches led to another Clemson touchdown to give the Tigers their final score.
Ross had single-handedly broken the spirits of the Tide. He went off for 153 yards and a touchdown on just six catches against the Alabama secondary. His touchdown reception went for 74 yards and immediately followed Alabama’s failed fake field goal attempt.
So, there you go. That’s how the failed fake field goal can be broken down. In the end, Clemson went on to become the first team to go 15-0 in the current poll era and won its second title in three seasons in the process.
Alabama-Clemson Part IV may have been anti-climactic - it was the worst loss for the Tide in the Saban era (28 points) - but these two teams are on a collision course for Part V (Clemson’s already the favorite to win the title next year followed by Bama).
Even with the outcome of the game, Saban was no-less still proud of his players.
“There’s a lot of good things our team did out there on the field today,” said Saban.
There’s still hope.