Clemson entered Monday night’s National Championship game having won 51 straight times when leading entering the fourth quarter. The streak came to an end at a bad time for the Tigers.
Alabama scored 24 points in the final period and held on for a 45-40 win as the Crimson Tide captured their fourth national title in seven years.
“I think I aged a little bit tonight,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We have a lot of great competitors on this team. The leadership on this team has been fabulous. I’ve never been prouder of a bunch of guys.”
Saban improved to 4-0 in national championship games at Alabama, while the Tigers’ attempt to win a national title for the first time in 34 years came up just short.
“I said that we would win a national championship again, it was just a matter of when,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve just got to go to work and build our program, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson starred in the defeat, passing for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 73 yards. He connected with receiver Hunter Renfrow twice in the first half for scores to match Heisman winner Derrick Henry’s two touchdown runs as the game was tied at 14 at the half.
Clemson led 24-21 entering the fourth quarter after Alabama tight end O.J. Howard caught a 53-yard touchdown pass, which was answered by a Greg Huegel field goal and a Wayne Gallman 1-yard touchdown run.
The fourth quarter was a wild one, starting with Adam Griffith making a 33-yard field goal to tie the score. Griffith’s most important moment of the game came a play later as he perfectly executed a surprise onside kick. Howard caught his second touchdown of the night two plays later, running wide open for a 51-yard touchdown to give Alabama a seven-point lead.
“Great play by them, it was a great kick,” Swinney said. “That was a huge play. Then we followed it up with a bust for a touchdown. It was a combination of mistakes. That was obviously a huge momentum play.”
After Clemson pulled within 31-27, Alabama’s Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a score. The Tigers pulled within five as Watson connected with Artavis Scott for a 15-yard touchdown with 4:40 remaining, but Henry’s third touchdown run put the game away. Clemson scored on a pass from Watson to tight end Jordan Leggett with 12 seconds left, but Alabama recovered the onside kick.
Henry rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns, while Jake Coker threw for 335 yards and two scores. Howard was the offensive MVP, catching five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
For the Tigers, Renfrow caught seven passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns, Charone Peake had six catches for 99 yards and Leggett hauled in five passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.
Alabama kicked a field goal to tie the score at 24 with 10 minutes remaining and Nick Saban went to his bag of tricks, calling an onside kick that was executed perfectly.
Adam Griffith popped the ensuing kickoff up in the air in front of the Clemson sideline and Marlon Humphrey ran under the ball and caught it. The Crimson Tide scored two plays later as Coker found Howard for a 51-yard touchdown.
Player of the game: O.J. Howard: Alabama’s tight end had 394 receiving yards all year before accounting for 208 against Clemson. With the Tigers focusing on Henry, Howard was left running free several times.
Play of the game: Kenyan Drake’s kick return: Clemson had just cut the lead to 31-27 midway through the fourth quarter when Drake took the kickoff and sprinted 95 yards to the end zone.
Stat of the game: 550: Despite the loss Clemson put up 550 yards of offense, more than twice what Alabama was allowing on average entering the year.
Mistakes Clemson overcame all year were costly: The Tigers have struggled stopping big plays for much of the season, and those struggles were costly against the Crimson Tide. Alabama scored four touchdowns on plays of 50 or more yards. Kickoff coverage, which also hampered Clemson this season, cost the Tigers as Kenyan Drake returned a kick 95 yards for a score. “Championship football is a game of a few plays, and that’s what this game came down to, just a few plays,” Swinney said.
Watson is the best player in the country: No, Clemson didn’t win, but Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson did all that he could. He accounted for 478 total yards against the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, making magical plays with his arm and legs to keep Clemson in the game.
Coker made plays when he had to: Alabama’s quarterback did not play well for much of the first three quarters, but in the final period he was 4-for-7 for 177 yards and a touchdown.