At less than its best, Alabama still wins big

A game like this should give the Glendale semifinal winner hope. By its exalted standards, Alabama wasn’t very good — except on defense, where Alabama is invariably great. The team being hailed by some as the best ever went 38 minutes and five seconds between offensive touchdowns as coordinator Lane Kiffin again outsmarted only himself, but in the end it mattered not.

And that’s the reason this Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, in its plodding way, might have proved Alabama’s greatness. The Crimson Tide is so good that even its offensive coordinator, apparently auditioning for his next job after Florida Atlantic, couldn’t undo it.

If you’re Washington, a 24-7 loser, you leave town thinking, “We got much of what we wanted and did nothing with it.” The Huskies scored first. They made Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts look young, which he is, and frazzled, which he’s becoming. They trailed 10-7 late in the second quarter and had hopes of snatching a tying field goal, and then they did the thing they could not do.

Jake Browning had just seen cornerback Marlon Humphrey drop what should have been an interception. On the next snap, Browning was menaced by a blitzing Reuben Foster and threw in haste toward running back Lavon Coleman in the right flat. Linebacker Ryan Anderson was exactly where he was supposed to be — these Bama coaches do their homework — and outwrestled Coleman for the ball. Whereupon he returned it 26 yards to make the score 17-7.

Technically, more than half the game remained. But Washington’s hopes, such as they were, had hinged on rattling Hurts and not handing Bama one of those non-offensive touchdowns. The Huskies got it half-right, which meant it still wound up all wrong. Anderson’s score was the 15th managed by a Tide platoon not coached by Kiffin, the 11th by Jeremy Pruitt’s — and, more accurately, Nick Saban’s — defense.

It’s difficult enough to beat Alabama as is. It’s impossible if you aid and abet the Tide. With 1:06 left in the second quarter, Washington’s chance had come and gone. Everything thereafter was tedious and, in the case of Alabama’s offense, not a little puzzling. By the time the third quarter was done, Bama fans in the Dome — there were a slew — were having grim flashbacks to the Sugar Bowl of Jan. 1, 2015.

That was the night Kiffin’s offense handed the ball to Derrick Henry, who would win the Heisman Trophy 11 months later, six times in a second half that saw Ohio State catch and pass the Tide. The consensus truism that Kiffin forsook the run completely is only semi-true — Bama rushed on its first four first-and-10s of the second half — but the lasting impression of that game was of Alabama trying to override Ezekiel Elliot and Cardale Jones with Blake Sims’ arm, trying and failing.

In Saturday’s first half, tailback Bo Scarbrough carried nine times for 80 yards, a four-tackle-shedding 18-yard touchdown burst being the highlight. The Huskies couldn’t match Alabama up front. (No sin there: Nobody can.) Yet here’s how many times Scarbrough got the ball on the Tide’s three third-quarter possessions: Three. And here’s how many points Bama scored: None.

It didn’t help that Bama kept messing up in a non-Bama way. It was penalized four times in the third quarter, twice for delay. But Kiffin was doing — or it seemed — as he’d done in the Superdome, putting a playoff game in the hands of a quarterback rather than in the heft of an O-line and the power of his backs.

It was only when Browning tricky-punted on fourth-and-3 and Alabama was pinned to its 2 that Kiffin cut the foolishness. On third-and-9, Scarbrough hammered over left guard for 12. Two plays later — one was a pass, but it was a cautious throw to an open O.J. Howard — Scarbrough swept left and, Huskies in his wake, cut back right. The 68-yard touchdown settled matters that seemed unsettled only because Bama had let Washington hang around.

Afterward, Saban said: “We knew we really needed to run the ball, and we ran it effectively in the first half. Then we started to see a lot more inside-backer plugs and corner fires.” And it’s easier for a defense to swarm the box when Hurts, who completed 7 of 14 passes and was sacked three times, can’t make it pay. As Alabama heads to Tampa, Kiffin’s offense has been thrown out of plumb. A better opponent might may hay of that.

Then again, Alabama’s defense might never let any opponent play even half its best. This was among the Tide’s lesser performances, and they beat the nation’s No. 4 team by 17 points.

Saban likened this game to a marathon — “You’re at the 20-mile mark and you feel like you’re not even halfway done” — but he’s within sight of Championship No. 6 and his program a game from a fifth national title in eight years. Yet again, Alabama is nearly there.