Battered and buried for four quarters beneath an 11-man mass of violent crimson, the Washington Huskies saw their season end the way many thought it would here on Saturday afternoon.
In many ways, it felt inevitable, Alabama’s unbeaten machine flattening one the nation’s most efficient offenses in ways nobody else could, at least not this season.
But then, there is nobody else quite like Alabama.
“They kind of are what we thought they were,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “Really, really elite, championship defense.”
The Crimson Tide — the nation’s No. 1 team, the nation’s No. 1 defense, the nation’s foremost producer of NFL talent — showed No. 4 Washington precisely why so few expected the Huskies to be competitive in this College Football Playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl.
Alabama won, 24-7, despite an admirable effort by Washington’s defense, which was overshadowed by a Crimson Tide defense so fast, so strong, so unrelenting that it rendered the Huskies’ offense inept.
The Huskies — champions of the Pac-12 for the first time since 2000 — finished this still-charmed season with a 12-2 record, tied for the most wins in a season in school history.
Alabama (14-0) advanced to the Jan. 9 national championship game in Tampa, Florida, where it will face No. 2 Clemson, the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal against No. 3 Ohio State.
“They’re really fast,” said UW quarterback Jake Browning of the Crimson Tide, and his second-quarter pick-six gave Alabama a two-score lead that the Huskies never challenged. “We knew that coming in. They obviously have a lot of really good athletes.”
But it didn’t seem after Washington’s second possession that Alabama would be quite this dominant, that it would hold UW to 2.9 yards per play, to 44 yards rushing, to 194 yards of total offense. Browning led the Huskies on an eight-play, 64-yard scoring drive in the first quarter, a perfect throw to receiver Dante Pettis for a 16-yard touchdown giving UW a 7-0 lead.
That drive featured a 13-yard scramble by Browning on third down, followed by a 20-yard screen pass to tailback Myles Gaskin. On both plays, UW used Alabama’s aggression to its advantage.
After that, nothing. Or barely more than nothing. After Alabama ripped down the field for a quick scoring drive — the Tide went up-tempo, and tailback Bo Scarbrough ran in for an 18-yard touchdown — the Huskies gave the ball back when receiver John Ross fumbled, and Alabama recovered and returned to UW’s 40.
The Huskies held the Tide to a field goal on that drive, but Ross’ fumble marked the beginning of a disastrous offensive trend. The Huskies went three-and-out on their next possession, losing eight yards. They went three-and-out again, gaining three yards. They went three-and-out yet again, gaining zero yards.
“Once I fumbled, it changed,” Ross said, “and then we threw that pick, and it was all bad from there.”
That pick. With a little more than a minute left in the first half, and UW still trailing 10-7 thanks to mostly stellar play by its defense, Browning made the kind of mistake that he absolutely had to avoid if the Huskies were to have any chance of slaying this giant.
On second-and-10 from UW’s 32-yard line, the sophomore quarterback saw an Alabama defender in his face (again). Rather than take the sack, he floated a desperate throw toward the right sideline, and it was intercepted and returned 26 yards for a touchdown by Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson.
“It totally changed the momentum of the game,” Browning said, adding that he wished he’d taken a sack or thrown the ball away.
The Tide’s 10-point lead felt insurmountable, even as Washington’s defense forced punt after punt after punt — just as Alabama did to UW’s offense, which gained only 10 yards on 11 plays in the third quarter.
Then, the decisive blow: Scarbrough, the bruising Alabama tailback who won game MVP honors by rushing for 180 yards, weaved his way for a 68-yard touchdown run with 11:56 left in the game to put the Tide ahead by three scores. Scarbrough had extended that drive three plays prior with a crucial, 12-yard run up the middle on third-and-9 from Alabama’s 3-yard line.
Would it have made a difference if the Huskies stopped him? Probably not. It felt like a minor miracle each time they went forward. They allowed five sacks. Receivers got blasted when they tried to run across the middle of the field. Linemen were discarded. Running backs went nowhere.
“They were good,” Huskies left tackle Trey Adams said, “but, obviously, we didn’t execute good enough.”
Obviously. Browning completed 20 of 38 passes for 150 yards, rarely finding time to throw the ball further than 10 yards down field. Even when he had decent protection, Alabama’s defensive backs covered UW’s receivers so well that Browning often had to settle for throwing the ball out of bounds.
Washington’s defense showed up, too, limiting Alabama to a single offensive touchdown in the first half, hassling freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts into an unimpressive stat line of 7-of-14 passing and 57 yards. The Huskies had three sacks. They had nine tackles for loss. They have an outstanding defense, and the defenders played that way.
They just didn’t play like Alabama.
On Washington’s final possession, the outcome long ago decided, Browning forced a meaningless fourth-down pass into the end zone. It was intercepted by Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama’s All-American safety, and a pair of Crimson Tide players committed unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during the return — “cheap shots,” as a couple of Huskies players described them, one against Ross and another against senior offensive lineman Jake Eldrenkamp.
Many Alabama fans seemed to revel in the display, chanting “S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!” as the officials sorted out the mayhem.
“I got cheap shot,” Ross said, plainly, and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster accused the Huskies of doing the same. “But it’s football. You get back up, and you live.”
It was an illegal play, but a fitting one, Alabama bullying these overmatched Huskies until the bitter end.