Regardless of who prevails in the desert, that team will be a big underdog against an Alabama team looking for its fifth championship in the last eight seasons. Bama remedied its rocky first half Saturday with a pick-six late in the second quarter and a stronger running game in the second half.
The final score showed a comfortable margin, but the Tide struggled along the way. Alabama’s typical slow start allowed Washington to strike first on a 16-yard Jake Browning touchdown pass to Dante Pettis. The lead lasted three minutes.
At this point the mood in the Georgia Dome had shifted completely from what it was pre-game. A lot of Washington fans just seemed happy to be there and to soak up the experience before kickoff, while Alabama fans had more of a businesslike mentality, treating the game as a pit stop on the way to Tampa.
But after the first touchdown, the mood quickly shifted: Washington fans sensed there might be a chance at an upset. Alabama fans, on the other hand, didn’t seem to panic. Facial expressions remained the same, and nobody looked upset. Tide supporters had seen this before.
Their faith was rewarded when Tide back Bo Scarbrough went on a bruising 18-yard touchdown run, shedding multiple Washington tacklers to tie the game.
The teams entered a bit of a stalemate until the end of the first half. Washington’s offense found it impossible to gain any traction against Alabama’s ferocious front seven, registering –5 yards of offense on their first three possessions of the second quarter.
In the early going, Washington did not beat the Crimson Tide offense as much as the Tide beat themselves with poor playcalling. Despite Scarbrough’s numerous successful running plays, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin continued to throw the ball on first down. Alabama ran seven first down plays in the first half after its touchdown drive and threw the ball unsuccessfully on four of them. An Adam Griffith field goal off of a forced fumble by Anthony Averett gave Alabama a 10–7 lead, the only other scoring activity in the second quarter.
A busted Washington screen play on second and 10 with 1:13 remaining in the first half forced Browning to make a poor throw into traffic, and Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson took his chance. The senior stepped right in front of the pass and took the ball 26 yards to the end zone to give Alabama a 17–7 halftime lead.
“I was rusher, and [teammate] Reuben [Foster] gave me a call to peel the back,” Anderson said after the game. “I peeled him, and the quarterback didn't see me, and I just picked it off.”
Tide QB Jalen Hurts busted free for a 38-yard run on the first snap of the second half, but after that Alabama was forced to punt. The run by Hurts flipped field position in favor of the Tide, and it stayed that way the entire third quarter, with the teams trading punts.
Washington picked up a little momentum after an incredible pooch punt by Browning pinned Alabama back at its own two-yard line, but Scarbrough broke off a clutch run on third and 9 to move the chains and restore order for Alabama.
Two plays later Scarbrough put the game out of reach by bobbing and weaving around the Washington defense for a 68-yard touchdown.
He was quick to give the credit to his offensive line for making that run possible. “They did their job, and I just took what they gave me,” Scarbrough said.
A lot of Huskies fans in the crowd hung their heads—and a few groans could be heard between the loud Alabama cheers—and some even headed for the exits with the score 24–7.
Now in control, the Alabama defense continued to stuff Washington at every turn, and the Tide offense ran out the clock.
It was far from a perfect performance from the SEC champs, however. Saban and his coaching staff will certainly examine questionable first half playcalling and yet another slow start.
For Washington, it was a bitter way to end a dream season. But Browning will be back next year and is sure to be one of the leading contenders for the Heisman. The Huskies have just 13 seniors on their entire roster, and only four of them start.
Washington coach Chris Petersen was still optimistic about the future of the program despite the result on Saturday.
“I think when you step back and look at the big picture, the bar's been moved up, been moved forward,” Peterson reflected. “Kids know it. I think we go back to square one…in a few weeks when we start training again.”
For now, the No. 1 team in the country marches forward.
Is it January 9 yet?
Photograph by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images