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How 3rd downs decided the National Championship

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On three of four downs in the National Championship, the Tigers got outplayed. On the other, they dominated.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson didn’t humble Alabama by 28 winning every play. The Tigers’ offense and defense often fell behind on first and second downs, in fact.

They smashed the Tide by winning the most important down, over and over and by a lot.

It’s not a stretch to say the 28-point blowout came down to third downs.

From Bill Connelly the morning after the National Championship:

Let’s define each play as a win or loss based on whether it was successful or not — so if the Team A’s offense gains 50 percent of its necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second, or 100 percent on third, it’s a win for Team A, and if it doesn’t, it’s a win for Team B.

*First-down wins (offense and defense): Alabama 42, Clemson 18

*Second-down wins: Alabama 22, Clemson 20

*Third-down wins: Clemson 19, Alabama 9

*Fourth-down wins: Alabama 3, Clemson 3

This game swung on third downs, and in a dramatic way. Clemson faced much larger yards to go on third downs — 7.7 to Bama’s 4.5 — but went 10-for-15 to Bama’s 4-for-13.

Some other numbers:

  • On first, second, and fourth down, Alabama averaged 6.5 yards per play to Clemson’s 5.
  • On third down, Alabama averaged 5.1 yards per play to Clemson’s 16.9.
  • Bama won 62 percent of the non-third downs and 32 percent of the third downs. “Bama was more efficient, but with poor timing,” writes Roll Bama Roll.

It wasn’t just that Clemson converted a ton of third downs. It was that Clemson ripped off huge play after huge play on those downs.

These were the most crippling of Clemson’s many third-down haymakers, going in chronological order.

1. This 62-yard completion to Tee Higgins on third-and-14 in the first quarter.

Bama played with three deep DBs. Nobody got deep enough for Trevor Lawrence’s arm or Higgins’ speed.

“We were in three-deep zone when No. 5 catches a ball and runs 50 yards, 60 yards for a touchdown,” Nick Saban said later, in a sad postgame press conference. “Guy doesn’t play the deep third properly.”

This wasn’t a touchdown, but the next play was: a 17-yard Travis Etienne run that gave Clemson a 14-7 lead.

2. This 26-yard completion to Amari Rodgers on third-and-7 in the second quarter.

Bama had no help in the middle. Rodgers beat cornerback Saivion Smith on a crossing route and had nobody around to tackle him. Etienne scored on the next play, and Clemson’s 5-point lead became a 12-point lead.

3. This 74-yard touchdown pass to Justyn Ross on third-and-8 in the third quarter.

Bama used one high safety. Ross’ release was strong enough to topple cornerback Smith, who got injured on the play. Then Ross breezed pass that poor safety, Deionte Thompson, a former No. 2 recruit at his position who’s not used to getting outrun so easily.

That made the score 37-16 with 23 and a half minutes left and essentially ensured Alabama’s complete collapse.

4. This 37-yard completion to Ross on third-and-12, also in the third quarter.

Alabama started with two high safeties, but one played to the side of the field where Clemson had three receivers, and the other was too far away from Ross to close the gap. That left Ross on an island with Josh Jobe — the backup cornerback who was only on him because Smith had gotten hurt trying to stay with Ross the prior drive.

5. This 17-yard backbreaker to Ross on third-and-9, later on that same drive.

Again, Jobe was in coverage. Again, he couldn’t do anything about it:

Bama again had one high safety. This time, he ran toward Ross, but the throw was such a dart that he couldn’t get there to help Jobe. Again, there was a lot of field to cover:

In one of this (approximately) billion postgame interviews, Lawrence suggested that catch was the moment he realized Clemson would win. And, yeah: Clemson was up 21 at this point, and Bama was holding on to its last flicker of a hope. The snap was at the Tide’s 37, where an incompletion probably would’ve brought about a Clemson punt.

Instead, Ross made a circus catch. A review upheld it. Higgins caught a 5-yard touchdown four plays later to grow the lead to 28, and that, too, was on a third down.

Those five plays made all but one of Clemson’s TD drives possible.

And on the other TD drive, a 14-yard Higgins catch on third-and-5 set up an Etienne TD two plays later.

On this night, a 14-yarder was less than Clemson’s average third down.

The wildest thing is how simple it was. Bama’s players just lost matchups, time and time again. The most talented team got out-talented.

Bama got caught in some tricky matchups, but also had defensive backs just lose head-to-head.

“Never really ever got comfortable with what we needed to do to win this game, especially on defense, especially the matchups we had in our secondary versus their receivers,” Saban said of a secondary that started from scratch this offseason. “That was something that was kind of bothering me going into the game, and as the game unfolded, it worked out that those match-ps were a big difference in the game.”

Bama’s DBs aren’t supposed to need a lot of zone help. That’s one point of recruiting better players than everybody else. But against Clemson, it sometimes looked like Bama could’ve had 12 guys on the field and still given up conversions.

“I thought the players prepared well for this game, and I think that they just got outperformed,” Saban said. “It wasn’t like we just didn’t cover a guy.”

For a change, they just had to cover better guys.