For a few minutes, Steve Sarkisian’s Alabama debut looked like a winner.
The Crimson Tide offense spent nearly 60 minutes putting on a frustrating Jekyll-and-Hyde routine against Clemson before Jalen Hurts overcame a mountain of skepticism and darted into the end zone from 30 yards out.
It was Alabama’s fourth touchdown drive of the night and appeared to be the defining moment of a classic rematch between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. With former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin off to Florida Atlantic, Sarkisian had answered the call with a pair of big fourth-quarter scores.
Problem was, the opposing offense was better. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (463 total yards and three passing touchdowns) capped the game of his life by leading the Tigers 68 yards down the field and tossing the winning touchdown to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second remaining.
It was the last in a long line of big plays that Jeremy Pruitt’s defense allowed, yes, but Sarkisian’s offense was more worthy of blame in the 35-31 defeat on Monday night.
Alabama had seven three-and-out drives against Clemson, and four others that netted 22 yards or fewer. The offense found the end zone four times, yes, but looked awful for the majority of the contest. During a crucial fourth-quarter stretch between the 14:00 and the 4:38 marks, the Tide totaled 27 yards on 10 plays, allowing Clemson to take control of the game.
Many of the same problems from the previous few contests were on display; almost all of them related to the passing game. Before Hurts tossed a 68-yard touchdown to O.J. Howard (a deja vu moment that doubled as Sarkisian’s best call of the night) with 2:54 remaining in the third quarter, the freshman passer only had 49 yards to his name.
Several plays were doomed the moment Hurts left the pocket or put his head down to locate rushers. He overthrew almost every deep ball. He was neutralized for the majority of the game. And once running back Bo Scarbrough left with a lower leg injury, the ‘Bama offense fell even more out of sync.
All seemed forgiven when Hurts put Alabama up, 31-28, with 2:07 remaining. Sarkisian called a great drive that included an effortless fourth-down conversion and a double pass from ArDarius Stewart — a high school quarterback — to Howard.
But it wasn’t enough. The offense had many chances to put the game on ice, and it could not.
You can blame the defense for allowing Watson to play out of his mind and drive down the field for the dagger. Or you can remember the bevy of key plays the “D” made after which the “O” failed to return the favor.
When Ryan Anderson recovered a fumble at the Clemson 35, Alabama wound up punting the ball back. When Anderson stripped Wayne Gallman and scooped up the ball at the Clemson 16, Alabama could only manage a field goal. A consecutive string of first-half drives starting at the 35, 37 and 38 resulted in 31 total yards and three punts.
There were too many head-scratching moments for an offense with such a powerful running game and massive talent on the perimeter, especially an “O” that was put in position to succeed on countless occasions. When the quarterback completes just 13-of-31 passes for 131 yards with that much talent around him, it’s not hard to figure out why the team took an “L.”
The verdict: Sarkisian, Hurts and company failed the Alabama defense in a 35-31 loss; not the other way around.
The coordinator is brand new. The kid is young. They’ll have plenty of time to figure this out. But that won’t change the fact that the Alabama offense did too little, too late on Monday night to win championship No. 17.