First-year Clemson QB Bryant harried by ’Bama defense
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, replacing Deshaun Watson was never going to be easy.
Watson went down as one of the best college quarterbacks ever; his successor isn’t there yet.
Bryant played well enough to get Clemson to a third straight College Football Playoff meeting with Alabama — and then it all went wrong.
He was intercepted twice — with both turnovers leading to Alabama touchdowns — and was sacked a season-high five times in a 24-6 loss in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night.
“We knew it would be a physical matchup. You have to give credit to those guys,” Bryant said. “They played their butts off and we made critical errors.”
Clemson’s previous two meetings with Alabama were thrilling, high-scoring national title tilts that came down to the wire. Watson threw for more than 400 yards in each of those games — a 45-40 loss two seasons ago and a 35-31 victory last season.
This season, they met in a CFP semifinal with Bryant hoping to lead the ACC champs past an Alabama squad that made it this far despite finishing second to Auburn in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division.
Coming in, Bryant had accounted for 3,504 yards and 24 touchdowns from scrimmage this season: 2,678 yards and 13 TDs through the air, and 826 yards and 11 TDs on the ground.
But Alabama coach Nick Saban had a month to prepare for Clemson’s 2017 offense, as opposed to one week before each of the previous two championship games.
“Kelly Bryant, I think he is actually a little more athletic than Deshaun Watson. He’s definitely faster and he likes to run,” Alabama defensive back Anthony Averett said. “We disguised very well and confused him a little bit and I think that made a difference.”
So did Alabama’s relentless pass rush.
“Coach put emphasis on just being destructive in our pass rushing and just keeping in our pass-rushing lanes,” said Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, who had an interception of a pass altered by teammate Anfernee Jennings’ near sack. “We did a good job of locking in during the practice and just getting after them as a whole defense.”
Bryant finished with 18 completions on 36 passes for 124 yards. He also was held to 19 yards rushing against Alabama, whose swarming defense unsettled him much of the night.
“It was just us making critical errors and shooting ourselves in the foot,” Bryant said. “We had great play calls but everybody wasn’t on the same page. We’ll learn from it.”
Clemson’s offense finished with 188 total yards after averaging 448.1 yards and 35.4 points per game.
“We didn’t protect our quarterback well at all,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Both of Bryant’s interceptions occurred on altered or tipped passes.
The first came when Jennings hit Bryant’s arm as he released the ball. The errant pass fluttered to Payne, who returned his interception 21 yards — 2 yards more than Bryant’s longest completion of the game.
“We will be sick when we watch it on tape. Kelly is getting ready to pull the trigger and throw it. And we get sacked. The ball comes out. They get it,” Swinney said. “So, again, it’s a game of a few inches. And they made the plays and we didn’t. So, just really that simple. That’s what it comes down to, missed opportunities. But they forced those missed opportunities.”
Later, Bryant’s pass intended for Deon Cain was tipped by Levi Wallace and intercepted by middle linebacker Mack Wilson, who ran it back 18 yards to make it 24-6 in the third quarter.
Bryant was nearly intercepted again, one play after Jennings had taken the QB down for the fifth time in the game. Bryant’s pass under duress almost looked as if it were intended for Alabama’s Wilson, who saw a chance for his second interception of the game bounce off his hands.
Still, it was a third-down play, leading to Will Spiers’ seventh punt of the semifinal.
Bryant’s New Orleans nightmare ended with a fourth-down incompletion from the Alabama 5-yard line with 1:43 to go. But even if he had finally gotten the Tigers in the end zone, it would have been far too late.
“He didn’t have much time back there and we didn’t get open as receivers for him,” Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “From the opening kickoff they hit us in the mouth.”
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