Brian Robinson Jr. grew up near the Alabama campus watching the Crimson Tide win championships, and wanting to play a big part in one.
With the fifth-year senior and first-year featured back running for a career-high 204 yards and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young throwing three touchdown passes, the Crimson Tide earned the chance to play for yet another national title with a 27-6 victory over Cincinnati on Friday in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl.
It was a bitter finish for Desmond Ridder and for the Bearcats, the first non-Power Five team ever to get a taste of the CFP. They were physically overwhelmed on the big stage.
“B-Rob was huge for us all night," Young said. "Making that first guy miss, falling forward fighting for those extra yards. He was a constant.”
“As a young kid, just always wanted to be a part of this program. Just always wanted to play for a national championship,” Robinson said. "Just being able to go out there and just lead this team in this big game on this big stage ... it’s like a dream come true.”
Alabama (13-1) has missed the four-team playoff only once and will try to win its second national title in a row and fourth in the eight seasons of the CFP format. The Crimson Tide will play No. 3 Georgia, the previously undefeated team Alabama beat for the SEC title, in the national championship game Jan. 10 in Indianapolis after the Bulldogs beat No. 2 Michigan 34-11 in the Orange Bowl on Friday night.
Alabama clearly was doing what it could to minimize the impact of standout Cincinnati cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, and pretty much succeeded with Robinson rushing 26 timesand Young throwing a lot of short, safe passes — though he did find hit Ja’Corey Brooks for a 44-yard catch-and-run TD on a play away from the standout defenders for a 17-3 lead just before halftime.
“I’m really, really proud of our team, our players. I think they showed great competitive character out there," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who in his 15th season at Alabama has six national titles overall. “Guys showed a lot of resiliency all year, to be able to have the opportunity to get to this game."
The Tide opened the game with 10 consecutive runs, the first four and six overall for 37 yards by Robinson, before putting three receivers opposite of Gardner, who hasn't given up a TD in coverage in his college career. Young found Slade Bolden open in the left flat for an 8-yard TD pass that put Alabama ahead to stay.
With Ridder, the dynamic quarterback and NFL prospect who returned for an extra season for just this chance, the Bearcats (13-1) were the nation's only undefeated team until facing the playoff standard bearer.
“Obviously, this is gut-wrenching and really, really difficult for everybody, but most importantly for the 30 or so seniors that have brought this program and this team so far,” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said.
Ridder was sacked six timesand outside of a 9-yard run on the opening play of the second half never got to hurt Bama with his feet. He was 17-of-32 passing or 144 yards.
“It’s one thing to sit there and watch on film, and to sit there and draw the twists and stunts they do on the board and work it through practice,” Ridder said. “It’s another thing to come down here and play it on a big stage.”
Young, a 20-year-old sophomore, has a chance to become the fifth Alabama quarterback in 13 seasons to win a national title as a first-year starter. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 181 yards in the playoff game, four weeks after setting an SEC championship game record with 421 yards passing in a win over Georgia and three weeks after being the first Crimson Tide QB to win a Heisman Trophy.
His only interception came late in the third quarter when he overthrew All-America receiver Jameson Williams in a crowd of defenders and the pass was picked off by Bryan Cook on the logo at midfield. Williams caught the other seven passes thrown his way for 62 yards, the longest being 20 yards.
After Cook's interception, the Bearcats went three-and-out for the fifth time in the game, with Ridder sacked for 10-yard loss on third down.
Cincinnati’s breakthrough into the four-team playoff was bolstered by a win the first Saturday of October at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, who lost 31-14 to Alabama in a CFP semifinal Rose Bowl played at AT&T Stadium last New Year’s Day, didn’t lose another game this season and finished fifth in the final CFP rankings behind the history-making Bearcats.
The American Athletic Conference champion Bearcats had a season-low 218 total yards and held without a touchdown for the first time since a 42-0 loss at Ohio State in the second game of the 2019 season, the last time they played a top-five team.
“We knew the battle in the trenches was going to be a big deal, and that’s kind of where the game was won,” Fickell said. “In no phase of it did we give ourselves an opportunity.”
Cincinnati: It was only the second loss in two seasons for the Bearcats, both setbacks coming in their final games. They lost 24-21 to Georgia on a last-second field goal in the Peach Bowl last New Year's Day. ... Cincinnati drove for field goals by Cole Smith (37 and 31 yards) on the opening drive of each half, but struggled to move the ball outside of those two drives.
Alabama: After the Tide never got on track with their running game most of the season, fifth-year senior Robinson and the rushers led them in the semifinal game with 301 yards. Trey Sanders had 14 carries for 67 yards. Going into the Cotton Bowl, the Crimson Tide were averaging 147.6 yards per game, their lowest total in 15 seasons under Saban.
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