GLENDALE, Ariz. — Deshaun Watson ran evasive maneuvers and threw pinpoint passes to someone named Hunter Renfrow.
Derrick Henry just ran and ran in his steamroller way, while Jake Coker rained bombs out of the sky on the Clemson defense.
In a bowl season filled with duds and routs, including both national semifinals, the CFP national championship game delivered spectacular drama on a grand scale on the game’s biggest stage.
Finally, though, Alabama landed with a haymaker, or two, that Clemson couldn’t answer. It took a huge dollop of daring by Nick Saban — or was it desperation? — but in the end Alabama did what it intended to do all season after its sobering come-from-ahead loss to Ohio State in last year’s Sugar Bowl.
Their mantra this season was to finish.
And finish Bama did, on top, with a thrilling 45-40 win.
It took all Alabama had in a game that was expected to more like a coronation against Clemson. Top-ranked, undefeated, under-appreciated, chip-on-its-shoulder-pads Clemson.
The Crimson Tide was a solid touchdown favorite all week over the Tigers, comparative commoners when it comes to these national championship affairs lined up next to blueblooded Alabama.
Clemson had the best player on the field in Watson, its standout quarterback. Third in this season’s Heisman Trophy balloting behind Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Watson proved Monday night that his talent takes a back seat to no one.
The key to moving the ball and scoring on Alabama is not to overpower the Crimson Tide. That’s like trying to turn the Sonoran Desert into the Everglades. The key to picking the lock of Saban’s defense is to extend the play, to keep it going until a crack opens somewhere. That Watson did over and over, sliding and running and ducking Alabama silly.
Oh, the Vince Young of it all.
Watson personally accounted for 478 of Clemson’s 550 yards of total offense and threw four touchdown passes, still chucking them when virtually all hope was lost.
It looked like Watson and Clemson had Alabama in its clutches when Tigers tailback Wayne Gallman smashed over on a 1-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to give his team a 24-21 lead going to the fourth. Clemson had won 51 straight games when leading going to the fourth quarter. The Tigers’ fourth-quarter closeouts were as firm as Howard’s Rock.
But Bama tied it at 24 with a field goal with 10:34 left. Then things went haywire. In a gamble that recalled a fake punt in a tie game with LSU in Tuscaloosa in 2013, Saban decided to roll some fateful dice. He called for a pooch onside kick that Adam Griffith dropped as neatly into Marlon Humphrey’s hands at the 50 as if he were throwing a pass.
Alabama educated Clemson coach Dabo Swinney went ballistic, recalling a similar onside kick his team ran against South Carolina last season that was disallowed. But this one stood, pulled off with typically clutch Alabama efficiency.
Two plays later, Jake Coker threw 51 yards for a touchdown to wide-open tight end O.J. Howard. Howard took a hammer to Clemson’s title hopes, catching five passes for 208 yards and two long scores. Perhaps the Tigers, who lost cornerback Mackensie Alexander to an injury earlier in the game, lost Howard in the lights, thought they were going against Ron Howard, something.
As much as anything or anyone, Howard was their end, the game’s offensive MVP.
Just like that, bang bang, Alabama had a 31-24 lead. Clemson responded with a field goal, but Alabama answered with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Kenyan Drake for a 38-27 lead.
Clemson was gallant to the end, Watson hurling a pair of touchdown passes in the final 4:40. But Clemson was too far behind to be able to catch up. A matter-of-inches 1-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry with 1:07 left and a failed onside kick with 12 ticks remaining finally sealed it.
Cynics can expect Alabama to claim two titles in this one win for some of the questionable championships it has annexed in past years, but this was a historic title by any standard. Alabama matched Notre Dame’s mark of four national championships in seven years, and Saban pulled within one title of Paul “Bear” Bryant with his fifth, including his first at LSU in 2003.
“We didn’t always play pretty in this game,” Saban said. “But when it comes to competing and making plays, it was as good as it gets.”
One or two big plays made the difference for Alabama. That extra bit of execution, that extra push of will.
Was Bama fortunate to win? Perhaps. But after all these titles under you know who, it was hardly an accident.