Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant had thrown six interceptions in 362 pass attempts entering Monday’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Alabama.
The junior tossed interceptions on back-to-back offensive plays in the third quarter that allowed the Crimson Tide (12-1) to grab control and earn a 24-6 victory.
No. 1 Clemson (12-2) trailed 10-6, but had momentum and was at the Alabama 35-yard line driving to try to take the lead when Bryant was hit as he let the ball go and his pass fell into the hands of Alabama’s 308-pound nose guard Da’Ron Payne.
The junior returned Bryant’s pass 21 yards and later finished the drive with a touchdown catch out of Alabama’s goal-line package.
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Clemson had the look that it wanted on the play where Bryant was picked off, but its protection didn’t hold up, and a huge momentum shift ensued.
“I think it was about a 14-point swing possibly … We were getting ready to throw a post ball to Ray-Ray (McCloud) over the top. The safety stayed on the backside hash. All we needed was an opportunity to get the ball off,” Tigers co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We didn’t there, and it results in an interception, and then also a return …”
It went from bad to worse for the Tigers on Clemson’s next possession. On the first play of the drive, Bryant was picked off by Mack Wilson, who returned the interception 18 yards for a score.
Bryant’s first interception came with 9:18 remaining in the third quarter and the Tigers at Alabama’s 35. With 5:27 remaining in the third, Clemson was trailing by 18 points.
“Any time you turn the ball over, it takes some wind out of your sails. We had a chance to go score … I think we had Ray-Ray for a touchdown, possibly, if Kelly could get it off,” Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow said.
NO RUNNING GAME
Clemson has been a balanced offense all season, leaning on its running game to get tough yards.
But the Tigers found no running room against Alabama.
Clemson was held to 64 rushing yards on 33 attempts as the offensive line struggled to get much of a push against Alabama’s front seven.
“We knew we were going to have to run the ball effectively. Nobody has been able to just come knock them off the ball and establish the run, but we needed to at least keep them honest,” Elliott said.
Tigers starting running back Tavien Feaster finished with four carries for 10 yards. He had only two carries until late in the fourth quarter.
“It was a rotation,” Elliott said of Feaster’s limited carries. “Him and Travis (Etienne) were rotating earlier, and then, obviously, too, we never really established a rhythm, so there were situations where we had a lot of RPOs called, and we ended up throwing it more than we handed it off.”
Freshman running back Etienne was banged up in the first half and missed several series. He did not have a touch in the second quarter before returning in the third quarter.
Etienne was being evaluated for a concussion, according to ESPN. He said afterwards he was 100 percent.
“Physically, I was feeling good. I guess I got dinged up, but I got back, and I was feeling myself again,” Etienne said. “I was never hurt, they just wanted to check me and see how I was doing. Everything was fine, so I went back in and finished the game.”