Alabama's Ability to Contain Deshaun Watson Could Decide National Championship

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Alabama's Ability to Contain Deshaun Watson Could Decide National Championship
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
Opposing quarterbacks have been taking a beating from Alabama's defensive front seven this season.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It wasn't intentional, and Jonathan Allen had no idea of the reactions that would result, but he and University of Alabama fans have had a lot of fun this week thanks to someone's ingenuity.

After last Thursday's 38-0 victory in the Cotton Bowl, a television reporter was asking Allen a question, saying that defenses don't post shutouts in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, when the junior defensive end cut him off to declare "Alabama does" and then looked square into the camera.

The timing was perfect, and although Allen said he wasn't deliberately trying to accentuate his point, he did so in a humorous way. But then a fan edited it and added some Snoop Dog music:

"I thought it was funny," teammate Dillon Lee said. "He's right."

There's a lot of smiling going on in the Crimson Tide locker room this week as Alabama prepares to face Clemson for the national championship on Jan. 11 (7:30 p.m. CT, ESPN), especially among the defensive players. In addition to the shutout, they've been lights-out good for a while, having yielded just 11.7 points per game against the team's last six ranked opponents.

But Alabama's final test will be a tough one, as quarterback Deshaun Watson leads the Clemson offense. Watson finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Derrick Henry and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, and won the Davey O'Brien award as the nation's best quarterback.

Even though Watson had surgery a year ago to repair a ligament in his knee, which is why he wears a brace, Clemson called his number more down the stretch. He and running back Wayne Gallman were a potent rushing combination as the Tigers pulled off the undefeated season (14-0).

"The guy is an outstanding player and does a great job of executing their offense, tremendous dual threat in terms of being a very good passer and rushing for over 1,000 yards this year, you know, really is a very good rhythm passer as well as a guy who can sustain plays and extend plays because of his athleticism and ability to scramble," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "Really is probably as fine a dual-threat quarterback as we've played against for a long, long time, and certainly does an outstanding job of executing their offense.

"There's no question about the fact that he's an outstanding leader, as well, because you can see the way the players sort of rally around him."

Joe Skipper/Associated Press
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson passed for 3,000-plus yards and ran for 1,000 this season.

Of course, the prevailing belief is that the best way to beat the Crimson Tide is with a dual-threat quarterback. One only has to look at the results to know why. Since 2008, Alabama has lost just 12 games, and most of the opposing quarterbacks are familiar names: Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, etc.

In general, when the quarterback can run, there's one more player the defense has to deal with, and by speeding things up, there's less time to make adjustments and react. It's a tough matchup for anyone.

Moreover, the only team that's ahead of Alabama in total defense is Boston College, which yielded 254.3 yards per game compared to Alabama's 256.8, but the Eagles were horrendous offensively (ranked No. 125 out of 127 teams in total offense) and went 3-9.

Against Clemson, they yielded 532 yards. Watson was 27-of-41 for 420 yards with three touchdowns and ran in another score, along with two interceptions, in the 34-17 win.

But Alabama has faced numerous dual-threat quarterbacks this season and quietly done well against them. The opponent with the most rushing yards by a quarterback was Mississippi State with 38. Collectively, they have a passing efficiency rating of just 99.47.

Watson Compared to QBs Alabama Has Faced
Name, School G Rushing C-A-I Yards Eff. Rating
Watson, Clemson 14 187-1032 303-444-12 3,699 155.9
Kelly, Ole Miss 13 107-500 298-458-13 4,042 155.9
Prescott, MSU 13 160-588 316-477-5 3,793 151.0
Dobbs, Tennessee 13 146-671 205-344-5 2,291 127.0

NCAA and team star

"He reminds me of [Josh] Dobbs from Tennessee, similar characteristics," Allen said about Watson. "Not as big, but a dual-threat quarterback who can throw the ball."

"Kind of like Dak Prescott but more mobile," said Lee, a senior linebacker. "He's got better moves in space and creates space for himself better than Dak Prescott."

Prescott, who is the same height (6'2") but has 30 pounds on Watson, completed 22 of 43 passes for 300 yards against Alabama but had just 14 rushing yards partly because of nine sacks (three by Allen). His team lost 31-6.

Alabama leads the nation in sacks and rushing defense, but its priority against dual-threat quarterbacks is contain and smoother, with everyone adhering to his lane and assignment.

"When you play a quarterback like Deshaun Watson, your rush lanes and how you rush is a little different from how it usually is," Lee explained. "I think with our defensive line and the guys rushing off the edge—Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams—they'll change a little bit of what they do to cater to Deshaun Watson and Clemson's offense.

"Those guys on the defensive line and rushing off the edge are so good, it kind of helps with the coverages we can play and more stuff we can do in the secondary because they can affect quarterbacks and contain people."

Rushing Yards by Quarterbacks vs. Alabama
Team Name(s) Total
Wisconsin Joel Stave 3-(-24)
Middle Tennessee Stockstill/Grammer 7-34
Ole Miss Chad Kelly 8-21
La. Monroe Smith/Brown 17-(-13)
Georgia Lambert/Ramsey 8-(-12)
Arkansas Brandon Allen 7-6
Texas A&M Allen/Murray 10-(-29)
Tennessee Joshua Dobbs 16-19
LSU Brandon Harris 5-20
Miss. State Prescott/Fitzgerald 31-38
Char. Southern Kyle Copeland 15-25
Auburn Jeremy Johnson 6-(-18)
Florida Treon Harris 11-(-4)
Michigan State Connor Cook 7-(-24)

Compiled from game stats

Alabama got better at it as the season progressed. Not only does Prescott have the most carries of any Alabama opponent this season with 26, but he also has the most pass attempts with 43.

The Volunteers were the last opponent to top 100 rushing yards as a team. The last team to score more than 16 points was Texas A&M. The team with the most completions? Wisconsin in the season opener with 26, and Joel Stave will never be called a dual-threat quarterback.

Since the Ole Miss game, opponents have been in the red zone just 14 times and scored six touchdowns. The last FBS opponent to score a rushing touchdown inside the 20 was LSU, and the last to throw one in was Tennessee.

Clemson's Offensive Line
Pos. Name Year Ht./Wt. Honor
LT Mitch Hyatt Fr. 6-5, 295 Third-team All-ACC
LG Eric Mac Lain Sr. 6-5, 315 First-team All-ACC
C Jay Guillermo Jr. 6-2, 325 Second-team All-ACC
RG Tyrone Crowder So. 6-2, 330 Third-team All-ACC
RT Joe Gore Sr. 6-6, 300 Third-team All-ACC
TE Jordan Leggett Jr. 6-5, 255 First-team All-ACC

Clemson roster, honors

Consequently, the key matchup figures to be Clemson's stout offensive line, with a freshman at left tackle, against Alabama's deep front seven. It includes unanimous All-American linebacker Reggie Ragland, consensus All-American defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson, fellow potential first-round draft pick Jarran Reed and Allen, who leads the Crimson Tide with 12 sacks.

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No one's laughing at that group on the field—not even its teammates.

"During practice, I hate the offense, that's just my job," Allen said. "I hate the offense. So during practice I want to hit, so you always have to remember who you're going against and what's at stake right now."

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh

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