NCAAF teams
Andrea Adelson, ESPN Senior Writer 16d

Key injuries stifled Nick Saban and Alabama's quest for back-to-back national titles

College Football, Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs

INDIANAPOLIS -- Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams got behind the Georgia defense and found himself completely wide open with a shot to get his offense going early in the second quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship game Monday night.

Williams made a twisting catch, and as he turned to head up field, his leg caught awkwardly in the artificial turf. He fell to the ground, clutching his left knee, and what should have been a drive-building 40-yard catch signaled doom for Alabama.

The Crimson Tide were already without John Metchie III, who tore his ACL in the SEC championship game. With Williams out for the remainder of the national title game due to a knee injury, it became difficult for Alabama to stretch the field without their top two receivers or score the way it needed to against the Bulldogs.

At that point, there was only so much Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young could do. Though Young shouldered the blame for the loss afterward, the entire game plan was altered as soon as Williams got hurt in the 33-18 loss.

"This guy contributed tremendously to our team all year," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Williams. "He has great speed. He's a vertical threat. I think our offensive coaches did a great job of utilizing his talent this year. He's been very productive. Any time you lose players like this, it has an impact on your team.

"It gives other players opportunities, and I'm not disappointed in how they responded to that, but there's no question that you win with great players. You win with great people. And he's been a great person and a great player on our team all year long. So when you take him out of the lineup, it has to have some impact."

As soon as Williams went down, Slade Bolden said the wide receivers tried to regroup and tell themselves, "Next man up." Once Williams returned to the sideline, wearing Alabama warm-ups, both he and Metchie tried to provide as much help and support as they could.

The young wideouts did the best they could under the circumstances, but their inexperience showed at times.

Players who have not been relied on in games at any point this season suddenly had their numbers called. Consider, for example, that freshman Agiye Hall had three targets headed into Monday night. But in the title game, he was targeted eight times. Hall ended up with two receptions and several key drops. After the game, he tweeted out, "I'll be back ... I'm Sorry Bama Nation."

Bolden finished with a team-high seven receptions for 44 yards.

"We all had to kind of step up, not just one person," Bolden said. "I feel like I laid my heart out there and tried my best, and I know everybody else did. It was just one of those days."

In addition to relying on a young group of wide receivers, Alabama went to tight end Cameron Latu more, and he finished with five receptions for a career-high 102 yards.

The Tide also tried to get veteran running back Brian Robinson Jr. involved out of the backfield. Robinson had four targets and four receptions in the game -- his highest total against an FBS opponent since catching four passes versus Tennessee on Oct. 23.

"That's part of my job, to be efficient in the passing game as much as the running game," Robinson said. "With us losing a key receiver, I knew I had to step up and be more efficient in my passing game as much as my running game."

Still, it became increasingly obvious as the game wore on that Alabama simply did not have anybody who could provide a deep play down the field.

After Williams left the game, Young went 1-of-8 for 28 yards with two interceptions on passes that went 20 or more yards in the game, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. It also was the first time in Young's career he threw multiple interceptions on throws of 15-plus yards.

For the bulk of the season, Alabama had found a way to overcome injuries, in addition to the youth on the team, especially with Young putting together such a dazzling season. But there also have been some hiccups on offense along the way, an inconsistency at times that showed itself once again with Monday's game on the line.

Alabama did have an opportunity in the fourth quarter to drive for a tying score. Down 26-18 with 3:33 left, Young brought Alabama down to the Georgia 44. But on second-and-10, he threw a pick-six that ended up sealing the game.

"Losing someone like J-Mo is tough," Young said. "But that's been a theme for us is overcoming adversity. A lot of guys stepped up in a big moment, and those guys that we were used to. I'm tremendously proud of how we played offensively, how people stepped up. I'm tremendously proud of how everyone around me played. It's on me to perform better. People stepped up in big moments when they were supposed to, and we had chances. At the end of the day, I didn't get the ball into the end zone, and that's on me."

Williams' emergence as a wideout this season was one of the best stories on the Alabama offense, as he filled a huge need after DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle left for the NFL. What made his season all the more exceptional was what came before he transferred to the Tide.

As a backup at Ohio State last season, Williams finished with nine catches. Looking for a fresh start and seeing the possibilities with open starting spots at Alabama, he made the decision to transfer. Earlier during media availability, Williams did not want to talk about the reasons behind the transfer but instead wished to focus on the national title game.

The season he had in 2021 deserved as much attention -- especially down the stretch.

Saban said Williams wanted to come back to play in the second half against Georgia but that the doctors said no. With Williams more than likely headed to the NFL draft, the young wideouts who were forced to step up on the biggest stage of all, including Hall, Ja'Corey Brooks and Traeshon Holden, will have experience to rely on when the 2022 campaign rolls around.

"It will help them a lot," 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. So they didn't have much experience going in, and they had some opportunities, and they made some plays. I'm sure that will help their confidence, and they'll grow and learn from this, and it will be a positive experience for them and their development in the future."

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