The towel covering Tua Tagovailoa’s head kept him from seeing the confetti cannon positioning behind Alabama’s bench.
There were a few angry faces staring into the distance as Clemson’s band fired off one more fight song before the clock hit zero. Nobody had the four fingers in the air in the closing moments of the Crimson Tide’s most lopsided loss of the Nick Saban era. The drama had long-since died at that point.
The stunning scene at the end of Clemson 44, Alabama 16 was different from the one witnessed in Tampa two years ago.
There was no last-second gut punch, but an evening-long bludgeoning that left a bizarre haze over the east sideline in Levi’s Stadium on Monday night.
“It doesn’t feel real,” Alabama running back Josh Jacobs said seated at his locker while Clemson partied down the hall and around the corner.
A few minutes earlier, a crying Hale Hentges got a hug from receivers coach Josh Gattis as he walked off the field one final time. Orange and purple confetti drifted all around them. Last year’s hero, DeVonta Smith, hugged this year’s freshman pass-catching star Justyn Ross after his 6-catch, 153-yard night helped finish off his home-state team.
“You just don’t prepare yourself for this,” Hentges said at his locker, eyes still red. “Here at Alabama, we obviously do a great job. I’ve lost four games here my entire career. It just doesn’t get any easier. We just do such a great job here of always executing. And when you don’t execute, it’s hard to deal with it. It just hurts. That’s the biggest thing. Just hurt.”
That best described the feel in Alabama’s locker room.
It wasn’t like the last time when Hunter Renfrow caught that pass with a second left to win the 2016 title. That dressing room was library silent — about as uncomfortable a room to enter as an outsider — after losing in the final second.
This one had time to germinate on the Alabama sideline. A few stages of grief had passed by the time the doors swung open for media interviews. There were no threats from players unwilling to verbalize what just happened.
They had the words this Monday night in Santa Clara.
“It’s embarrassing,” Jacobs said. “I mean, that’s the only way I can explain it. Embarrassing. Especially when you know it should have been different. I don’t want to speak on it too much.”
They were coming to grips with Clemson doing to Alabama what Alabama does most of the time. The 1998 Music City Bowl was the last time the Tide lost by 28 points — a 38-10 final against Virginia Tech to finish 7-5.
That was the Mike DuBose era when national title expectations had faded. It wasn’t handed down on the sport’s biggest stage with its coach a win away from passing Bear Bryant for the most championship titles.
This was an Alabama team that won every regular season game by at least 21 points. This was an Alabama team that finished wounded teams in third quarters 143-51 this season before seeing the margin widen with 13-0 deficit this time.
While defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs said he never felt like Alabama was out of that game, a certain reality set in that this wasn’t just going to be an unsuccessful night, but historically so.
Hentges described that introspective moment of realization.
“You have to evaluate yourself as a man,” he said. “We obviously didn’t want that score to be that lopsided.”
This was also an Alabama team that survived the grave last January against Georgia in the title game and again last month in the SEC championship.
They just never turned that corner. There was no miracle moment, no second-and-26 or magician off the bench.
The mistakes just cascaded their way to this 28-point loss.
“I wish I would have led these guys better,” said Hentges, a senior who played his last game Monday. “But that’s OK. At the end of the day, we left a lot out on the table. We really stopped ourselves a lot.
“I think everybody’s sick to their stomach about that.”
With that came a taste of that never-waste-a-failure talk that was already heard in Alabama’s locker room Monday night.
There were even a few light moments absent from the Tampa aftermath. Jacobs half chuckled saying this wasn’t the first time he’d coped with a loss this big because “in high school, I never really won.”
And why was Jalen Hurts wearing his jersey after peeling off his shoulder pads?
“I don’t have another shirt,” he said with a mini grin. “I didn’t want to go out there with my chest out.”
By 9:30 p.m. local time, most of Alabama’s locker room had emptied. Players faced a long walk down the Levi’s Stadium back hallways to the waiting team buses. A few celebrating Clemson fans stopped to take selfies outside the Crimson Tide locker room before Clemson even began its postgame news conference.
Walking slow from the Alabama dressing room, left tackle Jonah Williams grabbed a white plastic bag and began the walk out.
Chipotle was the post-game meal for players to eat as they exited the stadium.
“Nothing fancy,” a student worker said.
Just a burrito and chips to digest the most lopsided Alabama loss in 20 years.