A final second touchdown pass from quarterback DeShaun Watson completed an astonishing 21-point 4th quarter come-from-behind victory for Clemson over Alabama in Monday’s National Championship game. Their first National Championship since 1981.
Weirdly the final play of the night was, arguably, the easiest completion of the night. Wide receiver Artavis Scott (3 catches, 6 yards) ran a devilish crossing pattern with the ball on the 2-yard line that picked the Alabama corners to give Hunter Renfrew (10 catches, 92 yards, 2 touchdowns) acres of space for Watson (36/56, 420 yards, 3 passing touchdowns, 1 running touchdown) to find his man. It could have been completely different had Scott not picked off his man so thoroughly as Renfrew actually caught the ball outside the end zone and had to back peddle in for the score.
However the excitement of the final moments, including a daring onside kick recovered by Clemson on the ensuing kickoff, was just the thrilling conclusion to a truly enthralling game.
The game began as a defensive struggle. Only one of the first 8 combined drives ended up in points. Even that score happened in only three official downs as penalties and missed assignments gave Alabama running Bo Scarbrough (16 carries, 93 yards, 2 touchdowns) an untouched 25 yard run into the end zone. It was common belief going into the game that a defensive battle was always going to favour Alabama. Therefore it was not surprising when Alabama crafted another series full of big run plays, capped of by Scarborough once again, to put the Crimson Tide 14 points to the good in the middle of the 2nd quarter.
In fact the scoreline wasn’t the only thing that looked bleak for Clemson at that moment. Stand out wide receiver Mike Williams (8 catches, 94 yards, 1 touchdown) was knocked out of the game for a period after a big hit from Alabama safety Tony Brown. The hit called fair on the field was certainly bordering on targeting and no one was quite sure if Williams would return. Even more problematic was the unerring sense that quarterback DeShaun Watson was rattled. He had been sacked 3 times by that point and hit on multiple other occasions including one particularly nasty looking shot by lineman Rueben Foster.
The Tigers needed a spark if they were going to get back into the game.
Step up Deon Cain (5 catches, 94 yards). The formerly disgraced sophomore, who missed all of the 2015 playoffs after being sent home due to breaking team rules, caught a simple screen pass and side stepped his way for a 43 yard gain. By far the biggest offensive play Clemson had achieved by that point. This sparked life into the Tigers. Watson led his team down the field culminating in a 8 yard touchdown run by the quarterback despite having to deal with a bad snap beforehand.
With no more scoring in the half, it was a real win for Clemson to go into halftime with just a touchdown deficit.
Much of that blame for this closeness on the Alabama side can be put on freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts (13/31, 131 yards, 1 passing touchdown, 1 running touchdown). At one point in the middle of the second quarter he had as many batted down passes (2) as completions. His lack of touch on longer throws was particularly evident as he overthrew receivers on each attempt over 20 yards. With the running game of Scarbrough giving the Crimson Tide consistent yards, it didn’t look like a huge concern though, as it would surely open up opportunities for the Texas native to make his mark in the second half.
Clemson gifted Alabama an early opportunity as the game resumed. Running back Wayne Gallman (21 carries, 46 yards, 1 touchdown) fumbled the ball under pressure from Ryan Anderson who recovered his own strip to give Alabama the ball on the Clemson 16 yard line. However a false start and a poorly thrown ball by Hurts meant Alabama only capitalised on the opportunity with a field goal. A mistake that would haunt the Crimson Tide later.
Another glaring error, this time by Alabama punter JK Scott, led to the next score. ‘Bama pinned close to their own goal line managed to make room for the player but his punt skewed of his boot to give Clemson the ball in Alabama territory. A clearly growing in confidence Watson took the opportunity with aplomb, finishing with a wonderfully patient throw to Hunter Renfrew over the middle who swanned in for the score.
Two three and outs was followed by the most significant series’ of the game.
Jalen Hurts gave the Crimson Tide a seemingly unassailable lead with his one classy throw of the evening to Tight End OJ Howard (4 catches, 106 yards, 1 touchdown) on a wheel route for a 68 yard score. However one play before, Scarbough went down in an innocuous collision that later turned out to be a break to the players lower leg. Without their bell cow back, Alabama were in a position where they needed their freshman quarterback to take control of the offence. The pass to Howard looked like he was capable of doing so.
More importantly, Alabama had a 24 to 14 lead going into the fourth quarter. Something their vaunted defence could surely defend.
To put this into some perspective, it is important to remember how successful Alabama have been up to this point. The 2016 National Champions were unbeaten in 26 games. Head coach Nick Saban’s Alabama teams had never lost a game with a double-digit lead going into the fourth quarter. In fact, he was 97 and 0. Then consider that only Arkansas and Ole Miss had put more than 20 points on the Alabama defence during the 2016 season meaning seven ranked teams had failed to accomplish that goal. It was a huge ask for Clemson to mount a comeback.
At a time when confidence would be low in most teams, Clemson found their rhythm. Moving to a noticeably more up-tempo style, Watson suddenly found his range on sideline throws as he moved the Tigers up the field. This had the effect of nullifying the rush which abruptly stopped getting pressure on the quarterback. Each throw taking more wind out of the opponent. Finally within the Alabama 5 yard line, Watson was able to find the returning Mike Williams on a fade to the back corner to take Clemson to within three.
The Alabama defence rallied to counter some of the Tigers momentum but were constantly asked to perform heroics as their offence ground to a halt with the onus on Hurts. It should be noted that the Crimson Tide offence had been struggling before the injury to Scarbrough but without their most effective back, it simply could not produce yards. This was especially telling on 3rd down where they failed 12 straight times (succeeding on one 4th down play) to gain new downs.
Something had to give in this titanic battle and tiredness on the ‘Bama defence was the ultimate deciding factor.
In poor field position, Clemson were suddenly gifted space where none had existed before. Multiple times Clemson wide receivers were able to get a step on their opponents, highlighted by a circus catch from Williams in front of Marlon Humphrey. An unsportsmanlike penalty added more yards to that catch and suddenly the Alabama D was at sixes and sevens. Watson found himself unguarded for the first time and nearly made it into the end zone with a circus dive only
to fall a yard short. Gallman made up for his previous error plowing in on the next play as the Crimson Tide line caved in on itself.
Amazingly Clemson had taken the lead with just over 4 minutes on the clock. Alabama seemed to have no response as they went backwards in their first two plays. A big time catch from Howard put them in a short 4th down situation, which they converted but it looked extremely unlikely they would drive up the field.
Step forward new offensive co-ordinator Steve Sarkisian. The former Washington Huskies and USC coach, had an ignominious exit from his last job due to alcohol addiction, yet was in the spotlight of the big game after his hopeful recovery. Having appeared to be dumbfound by the loss of Scarbrough, he finally reached deep into the playbook and dialled up a masterful trick play. Utilising former quarterback turned wide receiver ArDarius Stewarts throwing ability, Alabama wrong footed the Clemson D with the reverse play to spring OJ Howard for a 24 yard gain. Sarkisian then issued a planned quarterback run, something Hurts excels at, and the underperforming quarterback danced his way in from 30 yards out.
With just 2 minutes left on the clock, one big stop would give the Crimson Tide back to back titles.
Yet Clemson rather offhandedly carved up their opponents. Watson had his side within an equalising field goal within a minute and was controlling the clock to make sure Alabama had little to no time to work with. As the Tigers closed in, the ferocity of the Alabama resistance intensified and it looked like overtime may on the cards however holding in the end zone on the ever dangerous Williams gave Clemson one last chance. Watson found Renfrew for his second touchdown of the game and the glory was Clemson’s.
It was truly a remarkable effort on the part of Clemson. In outscoring Alabama 21 to 7 in the final quarter, the Tigers scored more points than 12 teams did in all 4 quarters this season. The 200 yards put up in the last quarter also exceeded the total yardage Washington had in the entire Peach Bowl. It was the complete unravelling of the best defence in college football in a way no one could have ever imagined.
It was a remarkable comeback that will live long in the memory books.