Sarkisian dials up magical drive but Bama loses in his debut
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By JOHN ZENOR
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Steve Sarkisian dialed up a timely trick play, a pass that worked to perfection and plenty of hand-offs to Bo Scarbrough.
The combination nearly added up to a triumphant debut for Sarkisian as Alabama's offensive coordinator - on the biggest stage in college football. Almost.
Eight days after jumping into the job, his offense struggled mightily in the second half but produced a go-ahead touchdown with 2:07 left that wasn't quite enough in Monday night's 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship game.
"I knew the game wasn't over, and it wasn't," freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts said.
For a change, the nation's top defense couldn't overcome the Tide's offensive deficiencies. Deshaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow for the winning 2-yard touchdown with 1 second left and Alabama's 26-game winning streak screeched to a dramatic halt.
Sarkisian, a former USC and Washington head coach, was given the reins of the Tide offense a day after the Peach Bowl when coach Nick Saban ushered Lane Kiffin on to his new job at Florida Atlantic. That three-year pairing ended one game earlier than expected.
"I think the players handled it very well," Saban said. "I think we scored 31 points in the game, which I think was pretty good against a pretty good defense that actually shut out Ohio State last week. I think we had some drops. I think we had some tipped balls.
"I think there was things that we could have done better. But I thought the preparation was good. I thought the organization was good, and I thought we gave our players a chance in this game to have success."
One thing the Crimson Tide could have done better was convert third-down conversions. The Tide finished 2 of 15 on third downs, and all the three-and-outs led to 99 offensive plays by Clemson and a tired Alabama defense late in the game.
Mostly, though, Alabama stuck to the same offensive script - good and bad - as it had under Kiffin.
Hurts, the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year, struggled to complete anything more than short passes most of the game. But only Scarbrough had much consistent success before going down with a right leg injury late in the third quarter.
Alabama players insisted the 11th-hour change didn't affect the offense.
"It did not," tailback Damien Harris said simply.
"Everything was smooth the whole week of practice," receiver Gehrig Dieter said. "We knew going into the game what was going to happen. Sark's been here the whole season. It was a smooth transition."
Sarkisian wasn't available for interviews in the locker room, and Scarbrough declined comment.
The biggest test for Sarkisian came with four minutes left and Alabama facing its first fourth-quarter deficit since last year's title game against the Tigers. He passed that one with flying colors.
Alabama converted a fourth down with a Damien Harris run. Then Hurts threw a lateral to receiver ArDarius Stewart, a former high school quarterback who fired a 24-yard completion to tight end O.J. Howard.
Then Hurts did what he does best, running for a 30-yard touchdown that gave `Bama back the lead.
Despite Alabama's inability to get any sustained drives going in the second half, the Crimson Tide offense played to mix reviews with Sarkisian on the sidelines.
Howard managed to get behind the Clemson defense on a terrific play call for a 68-yard touchdown from Hurts late in the third. Scarbrough ran for 93 yards and two long first-half touchdowns.
But Hurts was 13-of-31 passing for 131 yards to go with 63 rushing yards.
"It always hurts to end it this way," the quarterback said, "but what's done is done."
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org
Updated January 10, 2017