The dynasty has been toppled. Clemson, which came so close a year ago, scored a touchdown with one second remaining in the national championship game to beat Alabama 35-31, and nobody could say justice wasn’t served. Deshaun Watson of Gainesville, Ga., cut the Crimson Tide’s unassailable defense to pieces, driving his team to four touchdowns in an astonishing second half.
If anything, the wonder was that Bama, which had done next to nothing on offense, had retaken the lead with 2:07 remaining. But Jalen Hurts completed a 15-yard pass on third-and-16, Damien Harris converted on fourth-and-1 and Hurts swerved through Clemson defenders on a 30-yard touchdown run that gave Alabama a lead it probably didn’t deserve. One hundred twenty-six seconds later, it was gone forever.
Hunter Refrow, the smallish receiver who makes massive plays, shook free against the Alabama secondary to grab the historic touchdown that kept the Tide from becoming the first modern program to win five national championships in eight years. But it was Watson who pulled all the strands together, throwing for 420 yards and overriding a 14-0 deficit.
The halftime score — Alabama led 14-7 — wasn’t far off last year’s 14-all. The feel, however, was much different. These first 30 minutes were a slog; the entirety of last year’s game was a whirlwind. The shock was that Hurts, Alabama’s freshman quarterback, threw two more passes in two quarters than he had in the semifinal against Washington, and on this night the Tide’s offense was under new management.
Two days after the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Nick Saban sent Lane Kiffin, who was bound for Florida Atlantic anyway, packing. Into the breach steeped Steve Sarkisian, who’d once been co-coordinator at USC and who, like Kiffin, had been both hired and fired as the Trojans’ head coach. The widespread belief was that Sarkisian would ask Hurts to do less. Wrong again.
Hurts threw eight passes in the first quarter, eight more in the second, none to much effect. Alabama’s longest reception was for 15 yards. Three Hurts passes were deflected at the line, two by Christian Wilkins, one coming on the first play from scrimmage. Sarkisian’s play-calling seemed even more disjointed than Kiffin’s had been against Washington.
As had happened against the Huskies, Bama’s offense looked competent only when the ball was handed to Bo Scarbrough. The Peach Bowl MVP scored this game’s first two touchdowns on by-now-familiar flights down the sideline. Bama seized a 14-0 lead, with Clemson mostly having itself to blame. The Tigers had failed on fourth-and-1 on their first possession and had lost a fumble off a bad snap on the third.
With 7 1/2 minutes left in the half, the Tigers faced something approaching a moment of truth. Watson, who nearly beat Alabama by himself last season, had been limited by this year’s Tide defense, and now Clemson was two touchdowns behind. But an inside screen to Deon Cain — who hadn’t played in last year’s title game due to suspension — gained 43 yards and lent pep to the Tigers’ step. Watson’s third-down completion to tight end Jordan Leggett brought Clemson to the Bama 13. Watson finished the drive by darting around left end behind a massive block from fellow Georgian Wayne Gallman.
By then, Alabama’s offense had, just like Kiffin, gone missing. The Tide managed a field goal early in the second half to make it 17-7 without benefit of a first down. Ryan Anderson had stripped the ball from Gallman and recovered on the run. For a moment, this appeared to be yet another in a season-long series of Bama defensive touchdowns, but Renfrow ran down Anderson and saved four points.
Renfrow then scored himself, turning a crossing route into a 24-yard touchdown. The Tigers were within three points and had stopped everything Alabama was trying. (The Tide had made only one first down since making it 14-nil with 10:42 left in the first half.) Bama handed the ball to Scarbrough twice, saw him make a first down and then go down injured.
Then the unthinkable happened. Clemson, which infamously failed to cover O.J. Howard in Glendale last January, let the All-American tight end run free again. Three Tigers came charging toward the line in expectation of a quick screen to Calvin Ridley, all storming past Howard in their rush. Even Hurts was capable of making this throw. The 68-yard touchdown reestablished Bama’s 10-point lead.
Not for long, though. Marlon Humphrey was flagged for pass interference against Mike Williams, touching off Clemson’s sharpest drive of the night. Williams caught a 4-yard touchdown pass, prompting Humphrey to complain that he’d been picked by Leggett.
A dynasty tottered. Alabama was essentially working without an offense and its best offensive player was hurt. Watson had begun to find his feet against the nation’s mightiest defense. Was there any way the Tide could hold on?
Twice the Bama defense stopped Watson and Co. The third time it could not. Williams made a leaping catch over Anthony Averett. The Tide’s Da’Ron Payne was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Proud Bama was coming undone. Watson skirted right end to 1. Then, with 4:38 remaining, Gallman barged over from a yard out. For the first time this season, Alabama trailed in the fourth quarter.
The Tide would take one last lead, but Saban’s defense couldn’t halt Watson at the frenzied end. The coach who was 5-0 in national championship games is now 5-1. And the orange Tigers from Pickens County, S.C., are champions. Whoa, Nellie.