A national champion 35 years after Danny Ford’s boys put Clemson on the map, this team and its electric quarterback did more than win a big game Monday. It deconstructed one of the real monoliths of college football in the process, an Alabama team that had not tasted defeat in 26 games and had owned four of the last seven national titles.
For Clemson, Monday night wandered into familiar territory, a place that had the makings of a terrible recurring nightmare. You know, like the one where you are naked in front of the high school pep rally.
Just as last year’s championship game, Alabama and Clemson traded big plays at the end like heavyweights used to trade big punches. Three lead changes in the last 4:38. Only this time, everything worked out the underdog’s way. This time Clemson would not be stuck playing the role of pedestal, upon which Alabama would rest yet another museum-quality season. This time, Clemson was a classic champion.
And this time Clemson had the ball last.
“I just flashed back from last year when they scored, and when we scored, and we were down five but we ran out of time,” Watson said. “But I just smiled right when they scored. I saw the two minutes and one second on the clock. I just smiled and I just knew, I told my guys, hey, let’s be legendary, let’s go be great.
“I told myself, they left too much time on the clock. Last year they ran out the time, but this time they left us a little bit too much.”
Trailing by 10 late in the third quarter, witnessing Alabama break a long touchdown play to tight end O.J. Howard reminiscent of his two scores in last season’s ‘Bama victory, Clemson appeared fated to lose painfully once more. And when the Crimson Tide’s freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts sprinted 30 yards for a go-back-ahead touchdown with 2:07 left, the Tigers looked halfway there to becoming the Buffalo Bills of college football.
But one question lingered: Could Clemson’s offense do enough against Alabama’s mannish defense to ultimately turn this thing around?
Now, understand that asking Watson if he can do enough is like asking Stephen King if he wants to write another book.
The guy got his degree in three years and became as much a regular at the Heisman ceremony as the little bronze fellow in the leather helmet. He wakes up thinking of ways to do more than enough.
Well, how about leading fourth-quarter scoring drives of 72, 88 and 68 yards? How about getting the ball on his own 32 with two minutes left, when needing nothing less than a touchdown, and the completing 6-of-8 passes (one incompletion was a time-saving spike) to four different receivers before sticking the ball in the gut of receiver Hunter Renfrow for a two-yard scoring play with one second left? Was that enough?
In the end, the Tigers performed the one deed their coach commanded in the week before this game. In beating ‘Bama, “You can’t knock ‘em down; you got to knock ‘em out,” Dabo Swinney said. “That’s the only way you’re going to beat the heavyweight champ.”
Gainesville’s Watson knocked Alabama out cold. He was a dynasty killer in the mold of Texas’ Vince Young who single-handedly beat USC, then riding a 34-game winning streak, for the 2005 national title. In that game, Young accounted for 467 yards of total offense. In this one, Watson totaled 463 (420 in the air, 43 on the ground).
It was Clemson’s lot to trail in all but 2 minutes and 31 seconds of this game. Playing from behind and playing desperate suited Watson just fine. Overcoming two brutal fumbles in the first 32 minutes of the game was no big deal. Watson just kept spreading the ball masterfully and in the end helped turn a former walk-on, Renfrow, into a Clemson cult hero.
A season ago Watson was the best player on the field in a losing effort. He was that again Monday. And winning is very much better.
When Clemson meets Alabama for a third straight time Jan. 8, 2018 in the new mega-stadium in Atlanta for the rubber match, it’s going to be tough to top the last two, especially with Watson traipsing off to the NFL.