TAMPA, Fla. — College football’s first national championship rematch was even better than the original, with an incredible ending.
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 the title. 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.
Watson “never won the Heisman Trophy, but consistently told everyone who would listen he believed he was the best player in college football,” writes CBSSports.com’s Chip Patterson. “After leading Clemson back from a two-touchdown deficit and taking down the kings of college football to deliver the Tigers their first national title since 1981, no one is going to argue with him.”
It was, says Patterson, “a game for the ages.”
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.
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.
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!”
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