Alabama 27, Cincinnati 6
The Crimson Tide will face the Georgia Bulldogs on Jan. 10 for the national championship.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — This was the moment the Cincinnati Bearcats had pined for all season. The roster is chock-full of local kids, overlooked by Ohio State in high school and largely underestimated now by the football elite, who put their place in the College Football Playoff down to a matter of necessity: The sport needed a fourth team in the field.
The Bearcats had dreamed so hard about a stage like this that some admitted their jaws might drop when they walked for the first time into Jerry World, as the cavernous Texas-size N.F.L. stadium here is colloquially known. As the team’s five buses pulled up, players held up their phones to the windows to record the moment.
If the Bearcats, determined and full of pluck, took memories away from their turn under the bright lights, they also got an up-close lesson that the rest of the college football has long ago learned — that Alabama remains the standard for the rest of the sport.
The Crimson Tide were far from perfect in pulling away for a 27-6 win — certainly not as fearsome as the team that ripped through Ohio State in last season’s championship game — yet they proved resourceful and showed a keen ability to rise to meet the game’s most critical moments .
After quarterback Bryce Young had eviscerated Georgia’s defense in the Southeastern Conference championship game, stamping his Heisman Trophy candidacy, Alabama on Friday instead leaned on an oft-overlooked player: tailback Brian Robinson Jr., who carried 26 times for 204 yards.
Robinson’s workhorse afternoon was the perfect complement for the Alabama defense, which shackled Cincinnati’s running attack — anchored by the Alabama transfer Jerome Ford — and harassed quarterback Desmond Ridder.
“It’s one thing to sit there and watch on film and draw the twists and stunts that they do on the board and work it out through practice,” Ridder said. “It’s another thing to come down here and play it on a big stage.”
Alabama (13-1) will compete for the championship against No. 3 Georgia, which defeated No. 2 Michigan in the Orange Bowl, the other semifinal, on Friday. The finalists will meet on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.
Alabama is trying to claim its seventh national championship since 2009, an extraordinary achievement that is underscored this year by the absence of Clemson and Ohio State in the playoff and Louisiana State firing a coach who won the title two years ago.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, was trying to justify that it belonged on the same field.
The Bearcats (13-1) were also carrying the banner for schools outside the so-called Power 5 conferences — the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Pacific-12 — and the independent Notre Dame. No school outside of that privileged class, where most of college sports’ millions stream, had reached the playoff, which was instituted for the 2014 season. Central Florida was shut out twice despite back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons.
If the Bearcats left the field having acquitted themselves well, they also carried with them some regrets: settling for a field goal early when Ridder fired a pass over the head of Alec Pierce in the end zone; not being able to jump on a fumbled punt deep in Alabama territory and doing little with safety Bryan Cook’s interception near midfield.
Mostly, though, Cincinnati will rue not being able to get Alabama off the field on decisive downs. The Crimson Tide converted five of nine plays on third and fourth downs during the first half, and got out of a third-and-16 hole late in the third period when Young connected with Jameson Williams for 20 yards over the middle.
As much as the teams have spent the last month preparing for each other, they have also been preoccupied with avoiding the latest burst of coronavirus cases, which had caused seven teams to pull out of bowl games. Two Alabama assistant coaches, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Doug Marrone, had to isolate for more than a week before rejoining the team this week. The universities did not say that any players had tested positive leading up to the game.
If the teams were vigilant, restricting media access to video calls among other measures, little else about the environment hinted at a pandemic.
Some bars and restaurants around the country require that patrons show proof of vaccination, but it was hard to find any in local entertainment districts that even required masks to enter. The same was true of AT&T Stadium, where mask-wearing fans were a small fraction of the crowd of 76,313 and a sign outside the press box read: “Masks are encouraged.”
“I don’t think it’s a concern for people here,” said Christy Schmidt, who along with her husband, Mark, had driven from Cincinnati for the game. Each time they stopped for food or gas on the nearly 950-mile drive, they ran into fellow Bearcats fans, who outnumbered Alabama fans by a noticeable margin on Friday. (Their fans roared when the Cincinnati alum Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end, appeared on the stadium’s video screen alongside his quarterback Patrick Mahomes; receiver Amari Cooper and cornerback Trevon Diggs, former Alabama stars now with the Dallas Cowboys, watched from the Tide’s sideline.)
Many Cincinnati fans were relishing their team’s big moment, particularly as it came in a year when Ohio State did not reach the playoff. “My heart is saying, ‘Yeah, go Cincinnati,’” Mark Schmidt said shortly before kickoff. “But it’s going to be a battle.”
If Cincinnati was to have a puncher’s chance, it would start with its All-America cornerback tandem, Ahmad Gardner, who goes by the nickname Sauce, and another rangy, athletic and well-schooled veteran with a catchy name, Coby Bryant.
Gardner is regarded as a high N.F.L. draft pick, and his performance suggests that scouts do not just like him based on spec: He has yet to allow a touchdown pass in more than 1,000 collegiate snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Bryant, who was awarded the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, has successfully defended 45 passes in his career — the second most among active players.
Alabama thought so highly of the Bearcats secondary that it turned back the clock to mitigate them. The Crimson Tide ran the ball. Then they ran it again. And they ran it some more. The strategy had such a familiar ring to it for Alabama fans — whether they grew up watching Derrick Henry, Shaun Alexander or Major Ogilvie.
“Sometimes you have to take what the defense gives,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said.
Alabama began the game by running the ball the first 10 plays before Young dropped a short pass to receiver Slade Bolden, who had nestled into a gap in the zone defense and lunged into the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown.
Young would throw two more touchdown passes — 44 yards to Ja’Corey Brooks late in the first half and 9 yards to Cameron Latu early in the fourth quarter — but he rarely targeted Gardner or Bryant.
Depth, though, is the great separator between programs like Alabama, which collects four- and five-star recruits like Christmas ornaments, and other upstarts with great ambitions. And as Alabama rotated its defensive linemen, they had more and more success against Ridder, who was sacked six times, hit relentlessly and had four passes deflected.
When Will Anderson Jr. and Brian Branch met in the backfield to sack Ridder on fourth down early in the fourth quarter, it spelled the end for the Bearcats — not just for the game, but for their ride this season.