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Alabama defense stuffed Kyler Murray early, held on late

They tweeted the #Dec29 hashtag that early December evening as Kyler Murray gave his Heisman acceptance speech. They were clearly mad.

Then for the next few weeks, Alabama defenders played nice. They had nothing but complimentary things to say about Oklahoma’s top-ranked offense leading into the Orange Bowl.

Then they actually played it.

And while the Sooners rolled up 471 total yards, it was already down four touchdowns before finding any rhythm in a 45-34 semifinal loss. Murray completed 19 of 37 passes for 308 yards but didn’t equal Tua Tagovailoa’s 24-for-27 night with 318 yards and four scores.

Elements of the predicted shootout came in the second half, Oklahoma was just too far down when it started.

Murray looked like a Heisman winner throwing a 49-yard touchdown to Charleston Rambo to pull within 31-20 late in the third quarter. It was his first passing touchdown of the night after entering with 40 in the first 13 games of the season.

“He’s a great player,” Alabama defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs said. “He’s a nuisance. He’s quick. He’s just what everybody said he was, but we did a great job containing him. He wasn’t able to get loose and get free like he wanted to and that’s why we came out on top.”

Murray missed one play in the fourth quarter when Quinnen Williams bowled him over in a quarterback hurry but returned to lead a scoring drive

The damage was done in the first quarter.

Oklahoma went 3-and-out on its first drive when Alabama threw Murray for two sacks. First Anfernee Jennings reached and pulled him down with one hand on second down. Then Christian Miller came off the edge to force the quick punt.

The Sooners finished the first quarter with just 24 yards to Alabama’s 200. Murray went 1-for-5 for 18 yards in that opening quarter. The second drive produced the Big 12 champs’ initial first down but a net of just six yards.

“I wanted a shutout,” said Alabama All-American defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. “I wanted to pitch a shutout and I was going to try to do my best and our defense was going to try to do our best to pitch a shutout.”

A leg injury to leading receiver Marquis Brown was certainly a factor in all of this. He went down in the conference title game against Texas and was questionable all month. After pulling in 75 catches for 1,318 yards this season, the South Florida product didn’t catch a ball all night. CeeDee Lamb did his part with eight catches for 109 yards.

“Yeah, Hollywood, honestly he was probably not as good as we thought he was going to be,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “He had some good days of practice. I thought there was honestly just some rust. He had about a whole month here where there was just very, very little that he could do.”

The Sooners finally looked like a team that led the nation scoring on the fourth drive of the game. It had just come up short on fourth down at midfield on the previous possession and was in danger of a historic rout down 28-0. A four-play, 75-yard march looked right out of the Big 12 cookbook.

It found success on two of the next three drives as it played with the pace that put them in the playoff. Those drives, however, stalled inside the Alabama 10 both times and resulted in field goals instead of touchdowns.

That’s where the third-down issues came into play.

The Sooners entered Saturday ranked No. 5 nationally converting 51.2 percent of the time. It went 0-for-5 in the first half before hitting on two to open the second half only to settle for another field goal.

The 49-yard bomb in the third quarter made things interesting. A few Alabama mental errors left the door cracked for the explosive Sooner offense and suddenly the 28-point margin was down to 11.

Alabama’s offensive plan in the second half was clearly to shorten the game pounding the running game with Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris and Najee Harris. It was 38-20 after DeVonta Smith’s touchdown that was answered by Lamb’s touchdown with 8:31 left.

The onside kick failed and the clock was on the Crimson Tide’s side.

It’ll be Alabama-Clemson for a fourth straight playoff after the Tide bent a little but didn’t allow the Heisman winner a chance to vindicate the vote.

Michael Casagrande is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.

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