Tigers deliver a last-second KO
TAMPA, Fla. — College football’s first national championship rematch was even better than the original, with an amazing twist at the end.
Deshaun Watson and Clemson dethroned the champs and became the first team to beat Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty in a national title game, taking down the top-ranked Crimson Tide 35-31 on Monday.
Watson found Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard touchdown pass with a second remaining to give the Tigers their first national championship since 1981. A year after Alabama won its fourth title under Saban with a 45-40 classic in Arizona, Clemson closed the deal and denied the Tide a fifth championship in eight seasons.
The lead changed hands three times in the fourth quarter, but Watson got the ball last. Playing what was likely in his final college game, the junior quarterback threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns. In two games against Alabama and the most ferocious defense in college football, Watson has thrown for 825 yards and accounted for eight touchdowns.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, the native Alabaman and former Crimson Tide walkon receiver, has built an elite program at Clemson that was missing only one thing. Now the Tigers can check that box, too.
“Eight years ago, we set out to put Clemson back on top,” said Swinney, who can turn postgame interviews into a rousing sermon. “We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying.”
After three quarters of vicious hits and tight defense, Tigers-Tide II ended up looking a lot like the first meeting when the teams combined for 40 points in the fourth quarter.
Clemson trailed by 10 until Watson found Mike Williams for a 4-yard touchdown pass a minute into the fourth quarter to make it 24-21.
The Tigers then took their first lead of the game, 28-24, with 4:38 left when Wayne Gallman surged in from a yard out.
The Tide’s offense, which had gone dormant for most of the second half, came to life with the help of a daring call from newly promoted offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Receiver Ar-Darius Stewart took a lateral from Jalen Hurts and fired a strike to O.J. Howard for 24 yards.
On the next play, Hurts broke free from a collapsing pocket and weaved his way through defenders for a 30-yard touchdown run to make it 31-28 with 2:07 left.
That was more than enough time for Watson.
“I was calm,” Watson said. He said he thought about Vince Young’s late touchdown for Texas that beat USC in the 2005 championship game at the Rose Bowl. Watson told his team: “Let’s go be great.”
Watson connected with Williams and Jordan Leggett, who made great catches for big gains to get to first-and-goal with 14 seconds left.
“I think they made some fantastic catches and some great throws and catches,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “And the last couple of drives when they had the ball, we just didn’t make a play when we needed to. We needed to get a sack. We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made the plays and we didn’t.”
A pass interference on Alabama made it 1st-and-goal at the 2 with six seconds left. Time for one more play to avoid a gametying kick and potential overtime. Renfrow slipped away from the defense at the goal line and was alone for an easy toss. It was the walk-on receiver’s second touchdown catch of the night, adding to the two he had last season against Alabama.
When it ended, Clemson’s 315-pound defensive lineman Christian Wilkins did a cartwheel and Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware was in tears.
“Don’t call it an upset,” Swinney said. “We expected to win this game.”
Clemson had snapped Alabama’s 26-game winning streak and beaten a No. 1 team for the first time ever.
“It’s been 35 long years!” Boulware screamed. “It’s coming home baby! It’s coming home!”
“Look, there’s not one play in the game that makes a difference in a game,” Saban said. “We could have done a lot of things a lot better. But I have to say that I was proud of the way our guys competed in the game, and just sorry for all of them that we didn’t finish it better.”
“Eight years ago, we set out to put Clemson back on top. We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying.” Dabo Swinney, Clemson head coach
Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow hauls in the winning touchdown pass, a 2-yard throw from Deshaun Watson, with one second left.