ATLANTA -- Jake Browning had nowhere to hide.
Washington’s star quarterback could only backpedal in the face of a constricting Alabama defense midway through the second quarter. Linebacker Reuben Foster had broken through the line untouched and was closing in on the QB like a missile.
So Browning, who had been so careful with the ball all season, bailed, flipping it into the flat to avoid another crushing hit at the hands of the Crimson Tide. It would result in Browning’s eighth interception and Alabama’s 15th non-offensive touchdown as linebacker Ryan Anderson jumped the pass, got both hands on the ball and steamrolled running back Lavon Coleman on his way into the end zone.
It didn’t matter if Alabama ever scored again. The tone was set and the game was over.
Anyone hoping for an even match between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Washington no longer held any illusions after the first-half turnover. The Crimson Tide once again proved too big, too strong and too fast to be contained as they beat the Huskies 24-7 in Atlanta on Saturday evening to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship.
When Alabama decided to put its foot down -- and not throw the football -- there was nothing Washington could do to stop the Tide.
It didn’t matter that quarterback Jalen Hurts had one of his least productive games as a passer, throwing for just 57 yards. Alabama’s freshman quarterback simply became part of a power running game that included big-bodied tailbacks Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. The offensive line manhandled Washington on the ground, helping Hurts & Co. to 269 rushing yards.
Scarbrough, in particular, was a battering ram. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore gained 180 yards on 19 carries, scoring two touchdowns.
But more than anything, the game was decided by Alabama’s defense, which entered the postseason leading the FBS in points allowed and yards allowed per game. With the exception of a busted coverage by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick that led to a Washington touchdown in the first quarter, the unit was nearly flawless, allowing 194 total yards.
Browning couldn’t avoid the pressure created by Alabama pass-rushers Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams. The reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year was knocked around constantly and managed just 150 passing yards. At one point, he was caught on camera telling an assistant, “I don’t have time.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban called his defense a “hateful” bunch earlier this season, and his entire team has played like it ever since. When Washington went to shake hands after the coin toss, Alabama’s three captains (Allen, Foster and Cam Robinson) declined and walked away.
Whether they’ll walk into the College Football Playoff National Championship with that same attitude on Jan. 9 remains to be seen.
But whether it’s No. 2 Clemson or No. 3 Ohio State on the opposing sideline, Saban and his staff had better hope that more than their physical defense and running game show up.
Bama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s unit was sloppy at times against Washington, and Hurts wasn’t his best in the pocket despite nearly a month of preparation.
Saban, who had a couple of heated exchanges with Kiffin during the game, pleaded for more consistency at halftime and is likely to do the same between now and Jan. 9 in Tampa, Florida.