Deshaun Watson certainly did his share for Clemson. The top-ranked Tigers, though, needed even more against powerhouse Alabama.
Watson threw for four touchdowns and accounted for 478 yards of offense, yet Clemson lost its dream of 15-0 perfection with a 45-40 loss to the Crimson Tide on Monday night.
Watson, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, had carried the Tigers (14-1) all season. He broke the Atlantic Coast Conference mark for total yardage held for 13 years by NFL quarterback Philip Rivers, then of North Carolina State.
Watson, facing his sternest test with Alabama’s vaunted defense, passed with flying colors.
When Alabama’s Heisman winner Derrick Henry rumbled for a 50-yard touchdown to open the scoring, Watson calmly answered back with a 31-yard scoring pass that he neatly dropped into Hunter Renfrow’s arms between Crimson Tide defenders Eddie Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Watson kept it going the next time Clemson got the ball. He hit Charone Peake for a 24 yards pass after scrambling away from pressure, then found Jordan Leggett for a 20-yard completion.
Watson closed the drive with his second TD pass, this one an 11-yard strike to a sliding Renfrow.
Alabama had allowed only 19 points in the opening quarter its first 14 games before giving up two touchdowns to Watson’s Tigers.
Watson finished with 405 yards passing, the most any quarterback has hung on the Crimson Tide this year. He also ran for 73 yards.
His performance was reminiscent of Vince Young’s dramatic effort in leading Texas past USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl for a national title. Young’s 467 total yards – 200 rushing, 267 passing – represented a seminal effort for dual-threat QBs and Watson was better. He just didn’t bring home the title.
After Alabama (14-1) moved in front 21-14 early in the third quarter, Watson went back to work once more. He directed a drive that ended on a field goal before giving Clemson its last lead of the game, 24-21, after directing a 60-yard touchdown drive.
Watson opened the sequence with a 20-yard burst, pulling the ball down and slipping through the left side of Alabama’s defense to put the Tide on their heels again.
Clemson, though, could not back up its quarterback.
Alabama seized control on special teams, first with an onside kick that two plays later, led to a 53-yard TD pass from Jake Coker to O.J. Howard. Then came Kenyan Drake’s dramatic 95-yard kickoff return score after Clemson had closed within 31-27.
It was just the second time the sophomore lost as a Clemson starter. He came into the season a question mark, a superbly talented dual-threat quarterback with a history of injuries.
Watson had surgery last December to repair the ACL in his left knee. He said from the outset that he wouldn’t let that change his style – and Watson did not.
He led Clemson to its 15th ACC title in December and a second straight blowout bowl victory over Oklahoma, this one in the national semifinals.
Watson’s play, though, could not make up for Clemson’s mistakes on defense and special teams against Alabama.