Opening kickoff sets the tone for Alabama's defensive showcase

Opening kickoff sets the tone for Alabama's defensive showcase

Trevon Diggs' tackle on the first kickoff of the game set the tone for Alabama's 24-6 defensive showcase against Clemson.

NEW ORLEANS— Just like Robert Bailey did for Miami in the 1991 Cotton Bowl, Trevon Diggs set the tone from the very first play. 

Travis Etienne took the kick off from the goal line and returned it 16 yards before he was met by the brick wall that was Diggs on the play.

“We just knew we had to come out strong,” Diggs said. “What was a better way to set it off than the kick off. Tried to set the tone for the defense. I feel like it helped a little bit. We just went from there and kept the momentum going.”

His hit proved to set the tone for the Crimson Tide. On Clemson’s first three offensive drives, it had nine plays and no yards from scrimmage. Going into the second half, Clemson had only 73 yards and a field goal. 

“I don't think that anybody could question the relentless competitive attitude that we played with, warrior-like mentality out there,” coach Nick Saban said. “And it's certainly what we needed. There are things that we could have done better, but I'm proud of the way our guys competed in the game. And I think that was the difference in the game. The toughness that we played with, the effort that we played with.”

Momentum seemed to be in Clemson’s favor at the start of the second half. Alabama received the toss but fumbled on its first offensive play. The Tigers took over at the Alabama on the Alabama 20-yard line, but was driven back three plays in a row, forced to kick a field goal from the 25-yard line. 

That drive stole momentum right back for the Crimson Tide as it intercepted sacked quarterback Kelly Bryant on back to back drives. The first was by defensive MVP Da’Ron Payne. He returned it 21 yards to the Clemson 42-yard line. 

“I was kind of shocked I had the ball in my hands,” Payne said. “I was just trying to get to the end zone.”

The other came off a tipped ball by cornerback Levi Wallace. Wallace that landed right into linebacker Mack Wilson’s hands. He took it 18 yards for the touchdown, Alabama’s second non-offensive touchdown of the year.

“That was all Mack breaking on the ball,” Wallace said. “Great hands, and just the finish it. I saw him dive and I kind of laughed because I felt he didn’t need to, but that was mostly on him. I just did my job. Hats off to him for finishing it.”

Alabama forced its way into Clemson’s back field all night. Five different players Bryant five times. Overall, the Crimson Tide finished with nine tackles for loss, driving the Tigers back 45 yards. Anfernee Jennings led the way in this category with three himself.

“The fact that we got a lot of guys back from injuries, it gave us a lot more athletes back on that edge,” Evans said. “I feel like that’s what made us dangerous tonight…This is what you would have seen all season if everyone hadn’t gotten hurt. We still have two big time guys hurt right now.”

Jennings would later go down, with a sprained knee. Saban said that his status is unknown moving forward. 

Defensively the Sugar Bowl was a much different story than the first two meetings of these powerhouses. 

The Tigers averaged 93.5 plays in its first two matchups with the Crimson Tide, including a 99-play game in 2016. This time Alabama held Clemson to 70 plays, 44 of which came in the second half, just above Alabama’s average of 63.8.

Wide receiver Hunter Renfroe was also held in check. Renfroe, who scored the game winning touchdown a year ago, had 17 total catches, 180 yards and four touchdowns in the first two meetings. He finished with just 31 yards on five catches on Monday night. 

“This is a great team effort by our entire defense,” Saban said. “The front guys did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage. The linebackers did a great job of adjusting. The secondary guys did a pretty good job of covering all day... The guys played about as hard as any of our defensive teams that I can ever remember in this particular game.

Alabama takes on No. 2 Georgia in the National Championship on Jan. 8. 

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