Da'Ron Payne makes a big impact in Alabama's win

NEW ORLEANS -- Before he scored, Da'Ron Payne danced.

Part of Alabama's goal-line offense package, Payne's presence in the Tide backfield alongside fellow defensive lineman Quinnen Williams is not unusual. But just before the snap on second-and-goal, with Alabama leading Clemson 10-6 midway through the third quarter of the CFP semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Payne started moving his 308-pound body to the right.

"When I seen him hit that little shuffle," said Alabama freshman lineman Phidarian Mathis, who was watching from the sideline, "I knew he was going to catch it. [Clemson] thought we were going to run that ball."

The big-man touchdown is one of college football's most anticipated, celebrated and glorious moments. What made Payne's so special was the stage it came on, the opponent it came against and the game-changing moment that preceded it.

See, Payne didn't just finish the drive that gave Alabama an insurmountable, two-score lead. He started it with an interception after teammate Anfernee Jennings hit Clemson's Kelly Bryant as he threw. Payne's first career interception and reception, along with incredible run-stuffing in the middle of Alabama's defensive line, secured Sugar Bowl defensive MVP honors for the big man.

"They listened to me," Payne said. "I had been talking to [coach Nick Saban] lots about it. He said, 'Just keep on working, and you might get it.' And I tried my best to go out and practice and work hard, and they finally gave it to me."

Saban joked that after Payne's interception, "there was no doubt" whom Hurts would target on the goal line.

"All we did was tell him to throw it to [my] belly," Payne said.

But Payne did so much more than catch two balls. He scooted for 21 yards after his interception return, before Clemson offensive lineman Tremayne Anchrum dragged him down, drawing a horse-collar penalty.

"I was kind of shocked I had the ball in my hands," he said. "I was just trying to get to the end zone."

On the goal line, Payne zoomed to his right, leaped to catch the ball and deftly touched both feet in bounds before tumbling to the ground. The play looked a bit like Clemson's game-winning touchdown against Alabama in last year's national title game, only this time it was Payne -- not wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, a man nearly 130 pounds lighter -- making the catch in the corner of the end zone.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Payne is the third FBS player in the past 10 seasons with an interception and a touchdown catch in the same game, joining Purdue's DeAngelo Yancey (2016 vs. Indiana) and Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore (2008 vs. Kentucky).

"I saw him do a little tiptoe," Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said, adding later, "I didn't even know we had that play in the playbook."

Linebacker Rashaan Evans didn't know Payne was on the field "until he caught the ball." Defensive end Raekwon Davis, a fellow 300-pounder who flanks Payne on the line, had seen Payne practice the play all week.

"It was funny," Davis said. "I didn't think he was going to catch it for a minute there. All week, he's been talking about how he was going to catch that pass, and then he did it."

Mathis had his doubts, too.

"You see how he strikes people," Mathis said. "There ain't no soft hands about that big fella. But he had a good week of practice."

Alabama's 24-6 win Monday night put to rest many questions: about the team's playoff viability, its defense and other concerns. But there was another answer that came courtesy of a nose guard who danced his way into college football lore.

As Davis put it, with a smile, "Big guys can move, too, man."