ARLINGTON, Texas -- No. 1 Alabama rolled through No. 4 Cincinnati 27-6 behind a monster day from running back Brian Robinson Jr. The redshirt senior rushed for an Alabama bowl record 204 yards on 26 carries to deliver the Crimson Tide a 2021 Cotton Bowl semifinal win and their sixth appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young threw for just 181 yards against Cincinnati's elite pass defense, but he tossed three touchdown passes to as many different receivers. Young broke program records for both single-season yards passing and passing touchdowns in his first game since winning the Heisman.
The Tide put together an 11-play scoring drive -- featuring 10 rushes -- on their first possession to set the tone for the game. The Bearcats managed to get into the red zone three times, but they settled for field goals twice and turned the ball over on downs once against the most vaunted dynasty in college football history.
Cincinnati managed to compile just 72 yards in the first half, the fewest in any half in College Football Playoff history. Cincy played better in the second half to end the game with 218 total yards, but it still averaged just 3.8 yards per play. Quarterback Desmond Ridder struggled mightily, completing just 17-of-32 passes for 144 yards. Running back Jerome Ford had 77 yards but only got 15 attempts in the game.
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Alabama has now won all six matchups against Cincinnati in their combined history, though the teams had not played since 1990. The Tide await either No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Georgia in the CFP National Championship on Jan. 10, 2022.
With Alabama moving on to the national championship, let's unpack all that took place on New Year's Eve in Arlington.
1. Brian Robinson Jr. met the moment
Against the No. 2 pass defense in college football, Alabama decided to turn back the clock and win with pure physicality. Robinson rose to the occasion in that effort, putting together the best performance of his career. The redshirt senior was dominant and bruising with 204 yards on 26 rushing attempts. Though Robinson didn't reach the end zone, he was the centerpiece of the Crimson Tide's offense on Friday.
Robinson has been somewhat of a forgotten man in Alabama's backfield, but at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, he was the perfect player for this moment. His effort meant that Young's somewhat pedestrian numbers were complementary, not a hinderance, as the Crimson Tide kept the offense moving. Alabama has beaten teams over the top with its vertical passing attack all season long, but Robinson proved he can be a game-changing playmaker if called upon.
2. Cincinnati's offense did not
There was optimism leading up to the Cotton Bowl that Cincinnati could generate offense because of its experienced signal-caller. Ridder came into Friday's matchup with more than double the number of career pass attempts of Young, but he struggled to keep the Bearcats on schedule.
The senior completed 53% of his passes and averaged 4.5 yards per pass attempt. Few of his passes went further than 10 yards downfield and the Bearcats averaged just 8.5 yards per completion. Alabama's secondary struggled at times this season and the Tide were without starting cornerback Josh Jobe. This defense was asking to be challenged downfield, Cincinnati failed to rise to the occasion.
It wasn't all Ridder's fault, of course. Cincinnati's offensive line struggled to block all night and Ridder's receivers did not do him many favors in creating separation. Still, Ridder could have been a wild card in this game. He was able to create a couple of individual plays with his legs -- something that did not appear to be a focal point of the Bearcats' offensive effort. As a result, the passing game was a weakness.
3. Alabama's front remains fearsome
Early in the game, it became clear that Cincinnati was effectively ceding its offensive line to Alabama. The Bearcats did a decent job, at first, of forcing playmakers like Anderson and defensive end Phidarian Mathis into uncomfortable situations, but the dam eventually broke.
Anderson posted six tackles and two sacks in key moments, while Mathis added two tackles for loss and a sack. The Crimson Tide sacked the mobile Ridder six times, broke up six passes and batted down four balls (Ridder had just five batted down all season long). Alabama's defense has been a work in progress for much of the season, but the Tide have found a rotation that caused the Bearcats all kinds of problems.
4. Cincinnati's pass defense is for real
While the game ended up being a three-score blowout, Cincinnati's pass defense mucked up the game and made life difficult for Young. Defensive lineman Myjai Sanders earned five pressures while cornerbacks Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and Coby Bryant were hardly targeted. Two of Alabama's red-zone touchdown passes were against linebackers, while the breakaway pass to Ja'Corey Brooks came against a safety.
All three prospective NFL Draft picks deserve praise for holding star Crimson Tide receiver Jameson Williams to just 62 yards receiving and 8.9 yards per catch. Gardner ended his career without allowing a single career touchdown catch. In every way, Cincinnati's pass defense held up its end of the bargain.
5. National title contenders
Alabama has primarily ridden the arm of Young this season, including his 421-yard, three-touchdown performance in the SEC Championship Game. However, Nick Saban proved that his team is still comfortable being uncomfortable and finding ways to win.
When playing against the best teams in the nation, it's the team that can absorb punches and keep running that often wins the national championship. After playing downfield football against No. 3 Georgia, physical football against No. 4 Cincinnati and grind-it-out football against Auburn, the Crimson Tide are prepared for anything the national title game will throw at them.
Alabama was a rare underdog in the SEC title. They'll be slight dogs again (+2.5) vs. the Bulldogs in the CFP National Championship, but that is hardly an indicator of this team's potential to win yet another national title.