Clem­son and Alabama au­thored a mas­ter­piece when they met for the sec­ond time in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off na­tional ti­tle game.

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY CHUCK CULPEPPER chuck.culpepper@wash­post.com

tampa — That au­da­cious tyke, the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off, had reached its third year and its ninth game with­out stag­ing a humdinger. It had held three duds, three half-duds and two near-thrillers (Ohio State vs. Alabama, 2015; Alabama vs. Clem­son, 2016). This hap­pens in life. The Su­per Bowl once spat out clunkers with such reg­u­lar­ity that the AFC al­most fell into the Pa­cific Ocean, and the coun­try al­most wished it would have.

Now the nou­veau play­off con­cept has its first mas­ter­piece. How do we know Clem­son’s 35-31 win over Alabama was a mas­ter­piece? For one, we know be­cause it has stuck its head out above oth­ers and looked down the years to find, for one thing, Texas vs. South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

In that game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, 2006, Texas quar­ter­back Vince Young some­how looked like the kid in the back yard who’s too big for the other kids, rush­ing for 200 yards, pass­ing for 267 and lead­ing the Longhorns on fourthquar­ter drives of 69 and 56 yards to clam­ber out of a 38-26 deficit.

He or­ches­trated two touch­downs in the fi­nal 4:21.

He scored the win­ner on the last chance, a fourth down with 19 sec­onds left.

Sim­i­larly, De­shaun Watson passed for 420 yards, rushed for 43 and steered Clem­son on drives 88 and 68 yards to quell deficits of 24-21 and 31-28.

He or­ches­trated two touch­downs in the fi­nal 4:38.

He threw for the win­ner on the last chance, a play that be­gan two yards from hap­pi­ness with six sec­onds left.

“Just re­mem­ber that night and sit­ting in my mom’s room,” said Watson, who was 10 and watch­ing Young, “be­cause I al­ways have the foot­ball on, and just see­ing him re­ally run­ning to the cor­ner of the end zone [to win the game] and kind of jump­ing up, and then at the end just see­ing all of the con­fetti come down. It’s one of those games like [Mon­day] night, where it just came down to the very end, and he pulled it out, and I did the same thing for my team.”

In two trips to the Rose Bowl, two wins in con­sec­u­tive Jan­uarys, Young amassed 839 to­tal yards against Michi­gan and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. In two trips to the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off na­tional cham­pi­onship game, a near-win and a win in con­sec­u­tive Jan­uarys, Watson amassed 941 to­tal yards, all against the de­fen­sive gi­ant Alabama.

Fur­ther, we know Clem­son-Alabama was a mas­ter­piece be­cause it proved so full of good­ies that you could spend weeks mak­ing room for them in your brain. Some peo­ple will spend years. Good for them.

There were so many mean­ing­ful plays that mean­ing­ful plays got hid­den. Those in­cluded the one where the pip­squeak for­mer walkon am­bushed the mighty line­backer, the one where the ex­pert five-star quar­ter­back punted ex­pertly and, go­ing way back, the one where the wide re­ceiver who is not the great Mike Wil­liams took an in­nocu­ous lit­tle pass and hauled Clem­son into rel­e­vance.

For the first, a sea­son-long Alabama cho­rus re­peated it­self. The Crim­son Tide pried a turnover for the 29th time in 15 games. Clem­son run­ning back Wayne Gall­man got stuck in a thicket of mus­cu­lar hor­ror. Line­backer Ryan An­der­son ripped out the ball. It spilled to the grass and rolled along. An­der­son col­lected it like it be­longed to him at the Clem­son 28-yard line and made off to­ward what would be Alabama’s 12th de­fen­sive touch­down of the sea­son and a 21-7 lead.

He didn’t get there. As he moved his 253 pounds into that which you would not want to run, an in­truder popped in from the left. It was Hunter Ren­frow, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Clem­son wide re­ceiver from Myr­tle Beach, S.C., who walked on at first and caught seven passes against Alabama in the 2016 cham­pi­onship game. Ren­frow would catch 10 passes Mon­day night. He would knife through two Alabama de­fend­ers for a 24yard, third-quar­ter touch­down, and catch that win­ning score with one sec­ond left.

Here, though, he did some­thing just as piv­otal, hurl­ing him­self to­ward An­der­son’s left hip so that the sur­prised line­backer top­pled at the 16-yard line. That en­abled Clem­son’s de­fense to make the stop and save four points, the even­tual mar­gin of vic­tory.

“That’s a hid­den play in the game,” Clem­son Coach Dabo Swin­ney said Tues­day.

An­other came next. Clem­son reached a fourth and one at the Alabama 43-yard line, down 17-7 al­most mid­way through the third quar­ter. The ball was snapped to Watson per usual, and the twotime Heis­man Tro­phy fi­nal­ist ne­go­ti­ated the pret­ti­est lit­tle pooch punt of this side of the Gulf of Mex­ico. It obeyed and came to rest at the 5-yard line, hem­ming in Alabama and en­abling both Ren­frow’s en­su­ing 24-yard touch­down and Alabama Coach Nick Sa­ban’s en­su­ing ire.

“That play and the tackle by Ren­frow were just kind of two plays mixed in a bunch of plays, but man, those were mon­sters,” Swin­ney said.

Look fur­ther. Way back in the sec­ond quar­ter, Alabama led 14-0, with run­ning back Bo Scar­brough ran­sack­ing the Clem­son de­fense for touch­down runs of 25 and 37 yards. Clem­son had sec­ond and five at its own 18-yard line with a plau­si­ble chance of get­ting mulched. Watson flipped one to the right to Deon Cain, a wide re­ceiver who missed the post­sea­son last year for fail­ing a drug test, and who now be­gan an­gling his way left­ward.

By the time he fin­ished, he was 43 yards up­field and Clem­son had joined the ball­game.

“Un­be­liev­able, in­cred­i­ble spark that he gave us [to­ward] that first touch­down with the screen,” Swin­ney said.

Even atop all that, the mas­ter­piece had its eter­nal ques­tions the way mas­ter­pieces do, sub­jects that peo­ple will dis­cuss well into nights, the an­swers unattain­able. How ideal.

How much did it mat­ter that Alabama en­dured hub­bub with its of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor po­si­tion, that Lane Kif­fin had ac­cepted the Florida At­lantic job in early De­cem­ber, that Sa­ban had re­placed Kif­fin with Steve Sark­isian seven days be­fore the game? “I think we scored 31 points in the game, which I think was pretty good against a pretty good de­fense that ac­tu­ally shut out Ohio State last week,” Sa­ban said.

On one side of it, 31 points should be enough with a world­class col­lege de­fense. On the other, the of­fense’s brevity on the field — re­sult­ing in five sec­ond-half punts — helped the de­fense tire. On an­other side, Alabama gained 376 yards, about 80 be­low its sea­son av­er­age but 50 more than against Washington in the na­tional semi­fi­nal, which Kif­fin co­or­di­nated.

On an­other comes an­other ques­tion: What if Scar­brough hadn’t left in­jured in the third quar­ter? “Not to have him was prob­a­bly a lit­tle bit of a dis­ad­van­tage for us, but I was pleased with the way the other backs that had an op­por­tu­nity in the game, Josh Ja­cobs and Damien Har­ris, played,” Sa­ban said, “We al­ways miss a guy that’s Bo Scar­brough’s size, es­pe­cially when you want to run the ball and take some time off the clock.”

And then, this: Would Swin­ney have gone ahead and or­dered a game-ty­ing field goal had there been five sec­onds left rather than six?

No, he said, but he would have at four.

Fi­nally, what kind of team takes Alabama’s 97-0 record un­der Sa­ban with a dou­ble-digit lead go­ing into the fourth quar­ter and turns it to 97-1?

That would be the win­ner of both a na­tional ti­tle and a mas­ter­piece.

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