Tigers de­liver a last-sec­ond KO

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTS - By Ralph D. Russo Ralph D. Russo is an Associated Press writer.

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

Brian Blanco / Getty Images

Clem­son’s Hunter Ren­frow hauls in the win­ning touch­down pass, a 2-yard throw from De­shaun Watson, with one sec­ond left.

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