Last night was a fitting end to a wacky college football season. In a bowl season where the supposedly “quality” bowl games ended up being blowouts, the two best teams in the country gave the nation a game to remember in the National Championship.
You didn’t know who would pull out the win. The game was being hyped like the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC, where Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson playing the role of Vince Young. The underdog and dual threat gun slinger who could single handedly determine the outcome of the game against the Crimson Tide. Nick Saban, who’s built one of the most dominant programs in history, the winner of three national championships in six years and looking for a fourth.
You had the top quarterback in the nation who finished third in the Heisman voting going up against the Heisman Trophy winner in Derrick Henry. All the headlines were about who would come to form and which player would shine and lead his team to a championship. The result proving that the correct player won the Heisman or a mistake was made in the voting department.
Both players made their impact on the game. Watson had more of an impact and was virtually unflappable against one of the best defensive units in the country. The big lights and the pressure of a trying to win a national championship for Clemson in 34 years didn’t affect this kid in the least bit. He spun the ball for 405 yards and four touchdowns, hitting on 30-of-47 passes. In addition he used those dangerous legs of his whenever protection broke down, scrambling for 65 yards on the night.
On the second drive for the Crimson Tide they fed their work horse Derrick Henry, he was able to find a gap in the Clemson defense by speeding up the tempo a bit. The defense was scrambling, with eight in the box and no safety help. Henry was able to scamper 50 yards for a touchdown, which capped a three-play 59-yard drive which consisted of all Derrick Henry runs. Henry was again consistent with his performance, despite all the attention given to him by the Tiger defense. He managed to rush for 158 yards on 36 carries with three touchdowns on the night.
Showing great poise for a sophomore, Watson led Clemson down the field on the next drive responding with a six-play 54-yard drive capped with a 31-yard touchdown pass to walk-on freshman receiver Hunter Rentrow. All of which was sparked by a 43-yard kickoff return by Artavis Scott. Watson would give the Tigers a 14-7 lead when he found Rentrow again in the back of the end zone, driving the Tigers down the field after the Crimson Tide’s Adam Griffith missed a 44 yard field goal.
Momentum was clearly in the favor of the Tigers forcing the Crimson Tide to punt after a quick three-and-out, the Clemson defense was giving the Tide fits, especially in the trenches. Watson made a crucial mistake getting baited into throwing an interception by Alabama safety Eddie Jackson. The Crimson Tide were able to capitalize on the miscue, a face mask penalty on Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson would allow them to inch even closer. The Heisman winner would dive in for a 1-yard touchdown run.
The Clemson defensive front led by book ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd made things very difficult for the Crimson Tide, starting with their knack for penetrating the backfield of Alabama. Their ability to disrupt confused Alabama quarterback Jake Coker most of the night, forcing him to hold on to the ball a little longer than he should. The Clemson defense sacked Coker four times in the first half, Alabama’s Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin was pulling his hair in frustration.
In the second half there was a key injury in the Clemson secondary, Mackenzie Alexander was lost for the game due to a left hamstring injury and it affected the coverage and miscommunication in the secondary.
Two busted plays in the secondary allowed one or Alabama’s unsuspecting stars to shine. Tight end O.J. Howard had a break out game breaking a championship game receiving record for yardage with 208 yards on five receptions with two touchdowns (53 and 51 yards).
This was a game where you had to leave it all out on the field and make plays in every phase of the game, Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide did pretty much that in all phases.
Struggling to keep Tigers off the field, Clemson gaining momentum behind the arm of their quarterback and their running back Wayne Gallman starting to gain some confidence, Nick Saban decided to roll the dice and call an onside kick. After the Tide tied the game at 24, the gutsy call took place on the ensuing kickoff that worked to perfection for Alabama. The recovery gave them the ball back, which led to the second big play touchdown pass to O.J. Howard from Coker to give the Tide the lead. For the second time that night, safety T.J. Green was lost in the mix for the Clemson secondary.
After a quick 6-play, 61-yard drive by Clemson that took less than two minutes resulting in a field goal. On the ensuing kickoff the speedster Kenyan Drake, who had his ups and downs this season with injuries, was able to stretch the lead again for the Tide to 11 with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Watson wasn’t done as he was able to go down the field and hit Artavis Scott for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Failing to convert on the 2-point conversion bring the Alabama lead to just five and the Crimson Tide needed to play keep away.
Clemson knew that Alabama was going to try to run out the clock by putting the ball in the hands of their running back Derrick Henry. So the Tigers went all out on the first play of the drive getting penetration by Kevin Dodd. His fifth tackle for loss forced Alabama to call a timeout and rethink their options, leaving them to decide whether Lane Kiffin had enough confidence to put the ball in the hands of his quarterback.
He did and it paid off for the Crimson Tide. Coker would find O.J. Howard on a screen, a missed tackle, a couple of good blocks from his wideouts and Howard was able to rumble for 63-yards. He would be pushed out of bounds at the 20-yard line. On a critical third-and-short, with everyone at in the stadium and most at home expecting Kiffin would call on his big running back to hammer it through for the first down; he calls a bootleg trusting Coker to make the play. Make the play he did, Coker scrambled for 3-yards to make it first-and-goal. It took three tries, but Henry was able to sneak the ball across the goal line to give the Tide a 45-33 lead.
Again, refusing to quit were the Clemson Tigers. Watson found his tight end Leggett for a 24-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds to go, but the Tigers weren’t able to get the onside kick and the Tide and Head Coach Nick Saban would capture their fourth national title in seven years.
Dynasty for the Crimson Tide? You bet. Will Clemson be in contention again next season? Absolutely.