INDIANAPOLIS — At halftime of the rematch that Just Meant More, the same Alabama football team that scored 41 points on Georgia’s prolific defense one month ago suddenly faced a bleak conundrum. It had 10 rushing yards on 10 carries, and its top two receivers were out.
Alabama coach Nick Saban addressed the backups in his ESPN interview as he strolled to the locker room with a 9-6 lead: “They’re capable. Don’t have the experience, but they’re going to get it tonight.”
The College Football Playoff championship was evidence that experience is indispensable, even when the next men up are five-star recruits. Quarterback Bryce Young and Alabama’s offense ultimately ran out of answers after Jameson Williams suffered a second-quarter injury.
He and John Metchie III combined for 2,714 receiving yards this season. Neither was on the field for the last half of the season and as Georgia (14-1) ended the game on a 20-0 run in a 33-18 victory over Alabama (13-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium. Williams’ injury was suffered at the end of a 40-yard catch, as though to cruelly remind Alabama what it would be missing in big-play potential.
“Any time you lose players like him and John Metchie, it certainly has some impact on how you can perform offensively,” Saban said.
Williams wanted to return to the game in the second half, but the medical staff wouldn’t allow it, “which I think was smart,” Saban said. Alabama won’t know the extent of the injury until Williams gets an MRI. Instead, “he kept guys motivated” on the sideline, running back Brian Robinson said.
The Crimson Tide turned to sophomore Traeshon Holden (183 yards this season before Monday), freshman Ja’Corey Brooks (136 yards) and freshman Agiye Hall (20). Holden caught three short passes to the flat, representing Alabama’s effort to play horizontal football and spread the defense out to open up the run game. The Tide converted a pair of third downs by clearing out space for Trey Sanders and Robinson to flare out of the backfield for more short passes. The crafty scheming created a rhythm.
But a drive that could have made it 16-6 with a touchdown instead ended when Hall dropped Young’s best throw of the game: a third-and-11, cross-field dime while blitzed. Alabama’s field goal was swatted, and Georgia responded with the game’s first touchdown for a 13-9 lead. It was the game’s first seismic momentum shift.
New dynasty?:Georgia wears down Alabama using Tide’s formula
Hall is a fascinating case study in this team’s lack of experience: In October, he deleted a cryptic tweet that indicated he was quitting the team. Saban has taken a different tone all season with his roster’s youth in mind. After Monday’s loss, the coach said Hall “really improved in practice in terms of gaining some confidence — what to do and how to do it.” The freshman had his moments, with two big catches for 52 yards.
But after Alabama fell behind 19-18, a downfield shot for Hall in single-man coverage fell harmlessly incomplete. He had no chance in his one-on-one matchup. The next play, that might have been on Young’s mind as he targeted the tight end Jahleel Billingsly underneath instead of Hall for a 50-50 ball over the top. Another incompletion: Alabama punted with 7:10 left.
Williams would inspire more confidence in a downfield shot on that third down, just by virtue of the Ohio State transfer’s experience and proven talent.
And when Alabama failed on a key two-point conversion, it was hard to forget the Iron Bowl game-winner in November, when Metchie beat his defender with a simple in-and-out route. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien didn’t have the weapons to call that play Monday.
“I think it will help them a lot. I think these kinds of experiences are invaluable,” Saban said. “The thing that’s tough about it is we played some guys tonight that didn’t get to play much during the season.”
And the injuries forced Alabama to use tight ends and running backs in the passing game more than usual. Tight end Cameron Latu’s 102 receiving yards led the Crimson Tide. Robinson made an NFL case for himself with 28 yards. Slade Bolden was a short-yardage playmaker.
“We knew we couldn’t dwell on (Williams’ injury) too much,” he said.
But in the end, it was hard to ignore that absence as one of Young’s last fateful pass, intended for Holden, was intercepted and returned for a title-clinching touchdown.
Part of Alabama’s identity in recent years was its sparkling receiver play. DeVonta Smith. Jaylen Waddle. Jameson Williams.
Without him and Metchie, Alabama was forced to make its last stand led by the inexperience that defined Saban’s coaching philosophy all season. What will the youngsters remember?
“Just the feeling of losing and that you don’t want to feel that way again, especially in a game like this,” Bolden said. “That’s all I’ve got.”