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The process of Alabama falling apart

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Clemson, Alabama, and circumstance all forced errors by the Tide, and then football’s tightest machine fell to pieces.

00:00

Nick missed the shoulder completely. Complete whiff. Pregame omens are iffy at best, but after Bevo tried to kill Uga prior to a Longhorn beatdown of Georgia, I believe all of them. Clear sign of early trouble for Alabama.

FIRST QUARTER, 13:20

Okay maybe just a fluke, since A.J. Terrell got possessed by the spirit of Ed Reed here and just stole a ball. When Reed decides to possess a DB, there’s no choice but to let it happen, and that goes for everyone, Tua Tagovailoa included.

Watch Terrell’s head snap back when he bolts. Consider making any decision in life this quickly or with this much certainty.

That’s a dog stealing a steak off the grill. You might get burned, but the payoff is dinner.

This happens, though. Might be big game nerves. It’s one mistake by one player in an aggressive passing attack. Machine’s not broken? Machine’s not broken.

11:03

Rushing three against a freshman QB on third-and-14 seems like a weird decision for Alabama? Maybe the thought was that no one would make a mistake in the secondary, and even if they did, a freshman would not be able to get the ball to Tee Higgins on time with eight in coverage.

About that!

Reaching for explanations is the thing to do after something like Clemson hammering Alabama into sheets of cheap scrap metal happens, and it’s what I’m sort of trying to do here. This explains this. This decision, while dumb in hindsight, made sense on paper.

Nothing about this game makes sense without yelling in wonderment. Clemson did nothing on first and second down all game, then hit third-and-longs like they were nothing. Clemson went 10 of 15 on them, including this bomb.

Look at the speed of recognition by Trevor Lawrence. That’s practically a hiccup by the safety, but before he recovers, the ball is over his head.

Every time Alabama left something unattended, Clemson stole it without a nanosecond of hesitation. It was hard to see that in the first quarter. Sometimes Alabama had given up long plays to start games, like against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Those games ended up 62-7 and 65-31 blowouts.

Still cool. Little shook, but cool. Like Keith Jackson would say: just two heavyweights trading haymakers.

6:23

It started here.

There’s something terrifying about watching a prepared team unravel. It’s sometimes hard to even realize it’s happening — maybe they’re just sleepy? Maybe they didn’t take their meds? I bet they have to poop.

People who are typically ultra-prepared absolutely crumble when their preparation fails them. There’s nothing left but to improvise, and Alabama has never been good at that.

A failure in the kicking game is the simplest step toward collapse. Special teams is the paperwork of football. It should be filed on time, a matter of procedure. When it fails, it feels like blind negligence, because ... anyone can hit an extra point, right?

It’s particularly bad for Alabama because:

This isn’t when panic filled Bama’s mind. Panic did text to say it was on the way over, though.

Clemson had something to do with Bama’s other errors to this point. It goes both ways when good teams play. But this is an unforced error. More will pile up as this machine becomes genuinely shook.

SECOND QUARTER, 14:18

The freaky chill had settled in, and things were definitely off. When Alabama made simple mistakes it should have shrugged off, it doubled down on new mistakes.

That crept atop the chain of command, eventually forcing errors seemingly by design.

The crucial drive was Alabama’s fourth possession late in the first quarter. Trailing 14-13 and coming off two touchdown drives, Alabama seemed poised to do that thing they do, where they put down a challenge by crushing with the run game and throwing a ball up to Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, or any other instant problem solver.

That thing where Alabama dares the other team to be as good as Alabama at the line of scrimmage, says where the ball is going, and puts the ball in that place.

For a minute, that was what Alabama did. Then, after ramming the ball to the one on first down with Damien Harris, Alabama called three more plays.

MMMM BEEFY

Second and goal: A fake dive/toss left pitch out of this tackle over formation. They’d used this formation earlier in the game to throw a TD to a wide open tight end. That tight end’s name is Hale Hentges. If someone with that name is not a used car baron or Alabama agriculture commissioner in 30 years, something has gone wrong.

Alabama had been running hard to the right for solid gains. This is kind of surprising. Bama’s left tackle, Jonah Williams, is considered one of the best in the country.

Then again, Williams was matched up with Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. Ferrell spent a good part of the night snapping Williams back like a Pez dispenser, pressuring Tagovailoa, and rerouting runs.

So Bama might have felt better about running right, behind tackle Jedrick Wills and guard Alex Leatherwood and away from First-Team All-American Ferrell.

But when Willis false started on second and one — forced errors become unforced errors — it became second and six.

Second and goal, plus five yards: Tagovailoa throws a quick screen to Henry Ruggs III. DB Isaiah Simmons wraps it up.

Third and goal: Shovel pass to Harris, stopped in the backfield by defensive end Austin Bryant.

With much of the game on the line and in two different short yardage situations, Alabama ran one stuffed run up the middle, one misdirection away from the strength of formation, and two quick pass plays that went nowhere. When ass had to be moved, Alabama didn’t trust its line to move ass.

That was the pattern all night. Clemson’s defense gave up yards, but not when it counted, flustering Alabama into quick passes and misdirection. One team punched the ball in on the ground in Santa Clara — it was Clemson, which scored twice on Travis Etienne runs.

That is shocking, but there’s more. Alabama spent most of 2018 hitting defenses with lighting strikes. Alabama only had 12 drives all year in which the offense ran 11 plays or more, and Tagovailoa was only on the field for six of them. Ten of those 12 drives were longer than 50 yards.

This was an 11-play, six-minute drive to get just 45 yards and three points.

Clemson’s defense made a few massive mistakes. The Tigers gave up a howler of a TD to open the game. They let Alabama have 443 total yards and 23 first downs.

Yet at the crux, Clemson turned Alabama’s track meet offense into Kansas State, forcing it to plod along for cheap threes.

After this, Alabama won’t score for the rest of the game. Clemson cooked Alabama like a chicken breast — as in, Bama was done within 16 minutes at high heat — even if we didn’t know it yet.

8:05

[/run alabama.exe]

[FATAL ERROR UPDATE ALABAMA.EXE AND RESTART]

[/update alabama.exe]

[RUN TUA.EXE TO UPDATE ALABAMA.EXE]

[/run tua.exe]

[FILE NOT FOUND, RUN ALABAMA.EXE TO UPDATE TUA.EXE]

[/run alabama.exe]

[FATAL ERROR UPDATE ALABAMA.EXE AND RESTART]

THIRD QUARTER

Alabama was already down 31-16, clearly incapable of catching a break, but the contagion of mistakes is about to turn into a full-blown plague.

9:53

A team running a fake that takes the ball back an additional six yards from the line of scrimmage on what is already a fourth-and-6: a broken team.

A team that does this into the teeth of a regular defensive formation is a disintegrating Terminator running through the options menu while the lights go out.

There’s only so much one can say in the face of madness.

Props to kicker Joseph Bulovas for hitting the hole like Lorenzo Neal, seeing Christian Wilkins, and offering a light shove while moving out of the way. If Saban wants his players to treat the game like a business, sometimes they are going to make business decisions.

8:26

A quarterback is the only athlete with 12 legs and 12 arms — i.e., only as good as the offensive line allows him to be.

Clemson’s starting line got an ovation when it exited the field with under three minutes left. They earned it, playing out of their minds, picking up every random blitz, and dumping Alabama’s front four. Lawrence did not get sacked once.

Even when Clemson’s line allowed pressure, Lawrence either climbed up in the pocket (which is good!) or threw off his back foot (which is bad, unless you’re Lawrence).

I don’t even know what you do as a lineman here. You’re flailing away at a 6’5 missile platform who’s impervious to fluster. His eyes are downfield even though you’re bearing down on him. The ball comes out about 10 feet off the ground, almost impossible to bat. It’s going where it’s supposed to go, in a hurry.

This happened after Alabama opted for a doomed fake field goal on fourth-and-6 while already down by two scores, deciding to have the kicker block instead of having a Heisman finalist quarterback throw.

So this score put Alabama into beclowning territory, down three scores in the biggest possible spotlight, turning this from a close loss into something laughable, brutal, and humiliating.

But it gets worse.

Justyn Ross, the freshman who caught this pass and ended all hope, is from Phenix City, Alabama. Alabama offered the four-star receiver a scholarship. Ross could have been catching passes from Tagovailoa in this game.

Instead, there he is in Clemson orange, mercifully pulling the plug on Alabama’s malfunctioning machine.