College football’s first national championship rematch was even better than the original, with an incredible twist at the end.
Deshaun Watson and Clemson dethroned the champs and became the first team to beat Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty in a national title game, taking down the top-ranked Crimson Tide 35-31 Monday night in the College Football Playoff.
Watson found Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard touchdown pass with a second remaining to give the Tigers their first national championship since 1981. A year after Alabama won its fourth title under Saban with a 45-40 classic in Arizona, Clemson closed the deal and denied the Tide an unprecedented fifth championship in eight seasons.
Eight years ago we set out to put Clemson back on top. We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
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The lead changed hands three times in the fourth quarter, but Watson got the ball last. Likely playing in his final college game, the junior quarterback threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns. In two games against Alabama and the most ferocious defense in college football, Watson has thrown for 825 yards and accounted for eight touchdowns.
Coach Dabo Swinney, the native Alabaman and former Crimson Tide walk-on receiver, has built an elite program at Clemson that was missing only one thing. Now the Tigers can check that box, too.
“Eight years ago we set out to put Clemson back on top,” said Swinney, who can turn postgame interviews into a rousing sermon. “We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying.”
After three quarters of vicious hits and tight defense, Tigers-Tide II ended up looking a lot like the first meeting when the teams combined for 40 points in the fourth quarter.
Clemson took its first lead when Watson found Mike Williams for a 4-yard touchdown a minute into the fourth quarter to make it 24-21.
The Tigers took a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter when Wayne Gallman surged in from a yard out.
On the last drive, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said he thought about Vince Young’s last-second touchdown for Texas that derailed the Southern California’s championship run in the 2005 championship game at the Rose Bowl.
The Tide’s offense, which had gone dormant for most of the second half, came to life with the help of a sweet call from newly promoted offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Receiver ArDarius Stewart took a backward pass from Jalen Hurts and fired a strike to O.J. Howard for 24 yards.
On the next play, Hurts broke free from a collapsing pocket and weaved his way through defenders for a 30-yard touchdown run to make it 31-28 with 2:07 left.
More than enough time for Watson.
“I was calm,” Watson said. He said he thought about Vince Young’s last-second touchdown for Texas that derailed the Southern California’s championship run in the 2005 championship game at the Rose Bowl. He told his team: “Let’s go be great.”
Watson hooked up with Williams and Jordan Leggett, who made great catches for big gains to get to first-and-goal with 14 seconds left.
It’s been 35 long years! It’s coming home baby! It’s coming home!
Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware
A pass interference on Alabama made it first-and-goal at the 2 with six seconds left. Time for one more play to avoid a game-tying kick and potential overtime. Renfrow slipped away from the defense at the goal line and was alone for an easy toss. It was the walk-on receiver’s second TD catch of the night, adding to the two he had last season against Alabama.
When it ended, Clemson’s 315-pound defensive lineman Christian Wilkins did a cartwheel and Ben Boulware, one of the toughest linebackers in the country, was in tears.
The Tigers had snapped Alabama’s 26-game winning streak and beaten a No. 1 team for the first time ever.
“It’s been 35 long years!” Boulware screamed. “It’s coming home baby! It’s coming home!”
BAMA—Scarbrough 25 run (Griffith kick), 9:23
BAMA—Scarbrough 37 run (Griffith kick), 10:42
CLE—Watson 8 run (Huegel kick), 6:09
BAMA—FG Griffith 27, 12:25
CLE—Renfrow 24 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), 7:10
BAMA—Howard 68 pass from Hurts (Griffith kick), 1:53
CLE—M.Williams 4 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), 14:00
CLE—Gallman 1 run (Huegel kick), 4:38
BAMA—Hurts 30 run (Griffith kick), 2:07
CLE—Renfrow 2 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), :01
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Clemson, Gallman 18-46, Watson 22-43, Fuller 1-3, A.Scott 1-0, (Team) 1-(minus 1). Alabama, Scarbrough 16-93, Hurts 9-63, A.Stewart 1-25, D.Harris 5-24, Jacobs 2-16.
PASSING—Clemson, Watson 36-56-0-420, (Team) 0-1-0-0. Alabama, Hurts 13-31-0-131, A.Stewart 1-1-0-24.
RECEIVING—Clemson, Renfrow 10-92, M.Williams 8-94, Leggett 7-95, Cain 5-94, Gallman 3-39, A.Scott 3-6. Alabama, Ridley 5-36, Howard 4-106, A.Stewart 2-12, Scarbrough 2-7, D.Harris 1-(minus 6).
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.
College Football Championship Winners
College Football Championship
Jan. 9, 2017 — Clemson 35, Alabama 31
Jan. 11, 2016 — Alabama 45, Clemson 40
Jan. 12, 2015 — Ohio St. 42, Oregon 20
BCS National Championship
Jan. 6, 2014 — Florida St. 34, Auburn 31
Jan. 7, 2013 — Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14
Jan. 9, 2012 — Alabama 21, LSU 0
Jan. 10, 2011 — Auburn 22, Oregon 19
Jan. 7, 2010 — Alabama 37, Texas 21
Jan. 8, 2009 — Florida 24, Oklahoma 14
Jan. 7, 2008 — LSU 38, Ohio State 24
Jan. 8, 2007 — Florida 41, Ohio State 14
Jan. 4, 2006 Rose Bowl — Texas 41, Southern Cal-x 38
Jan. 1, 2005 Orange Bowl — Southern Cal-x 55, Oklahoma 19
Jan. 4, 2004 Sugar Bowl — LSU 21, Oklahoma 14
Jan. 3, 2003 Fiesta Bowl — Ohio St. 31, Miami 24, 2OT
Jan. 3, 2002 Rose Bowl — Miami 37, Nebraska 14
Jan. 3, 2001 Orange Bowl — Oklahoma 13, Florida St. 2
Jan. 4, 2000 Sugar Bowl — Florida St. 46, Virginia Tech 29
Jan. 4, 1999 Fiesta Bowl — Tennessee 23, Florida St. 16