By Peter Finney Jr., The Sports Xchange – UPI
Nose guard Da’Ron Payne and linebacker Mack Wilson intercepted passes on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter, keying a ferocious second-half defensive assault that produced a pair of touchdowns in a 13-second span to power No. 4 Alabama to a 24-6 victory over No. 1 Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Monday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Alabama (12-1) will play Southeastern Conference East rival Georgia (13-1) for the College Football National Championship on Jan. 8 in Atlanta. The two SEC foes have not played each other since 2015, when the Crimson Tide routed Georgia 38-10.
Clemson trailed just 10-6 and had moved to a second-and-2 at the Alabama 35 in the third quarter when the Alabama defense, healthy again after a month of rest, turned the tide. Linebacker Anfernee Jennings came off the edge to hit Kelly Bryant as the quarterback released a pass, and Payne gathered in the weakened throw for the interception, returning it 21 yards.
Payne was taken down on an illegal horse-collar tackle by tackle Tremayne Anchrum, setting up Alabama at the Clemson 27.
The 6-foot-2, 308-pound Payne followed up his game-turning play by lining up as an H-back, going in motion to the right and catching a wide-open, 1-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone from quarterback Jalen Hurts, putting Alabama up 17-6.
On the first play after the kickoff, Bryant threw into tight coverage for receiver Deon Cain, and cornerback Levi Wallace broke on the route, forcing the ball into the air. Wilson gathered in the pop fly and raced 18 yards untouched for the score and a 24-6 Alabama lead.
Hurts completed 16 of 24 passes for just 120 yards and two touchdowns. That was more than enough for the dominant Alabama defense.
Even though Alabama gained just 260 yards in total offense, Clemson finished with only 188. Alabama sacked Bryant five times and hurried him repeatedly.
Clemson had to be thrilled to trail only 10-3 at halftime despite being dominated in total offense (161-74 yards) and time of possession (18:34 to 11:26), as well as allowing the Crimson Tide a sizable advantage in field position.
Of Alabama’s five first-half drives, four started beyond the Crimson Tide 40-yard line, and yet, the excellent field position led only to a 24-yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to Calvin Ridley.
The other two promising drives ended with a three-and-out and a missed 38-yard field goal by Pappanastos at the end of the first half. Alabama actually got a reprieve on Pappanastos’ first try from 33 yards out — the kick was blocked and fell short — but the Tide was called for a delay of game. Pappanastos did not take advantage of the break, however, clanging the ensuing 38-yard attempt off the left upright.
Clemson, meanwhile, played in a field-position hole for the entire first half. The average field position on the Tigers’ first five drives was the Clemson 17-yard line.
Alabama held Clemson to minus-7 yards of total offense in the first quarter. Clemson finally got on the scoreboard in the second quarter with a 44-yard field goal by Alex Spence, which capped a 54-yard, 13-play drive. It was the Tigers’ only substantive drive of the half.
NOTES: Clemson RB Travis Etienne was evaluated for a possible concussion in the first half but returned for the second half. … Alabama QB Jalen Hurts wasted a sure scoring opportunity when he underthrew WR Calvin Ridley on what would have been a 60-yard flea flicker. Ridley was 5 yards behind the secondary but had to slow down for the pass, which was broken up by S Van Smith.