By Ryan Nelson (@TheRyanNelson_)
The Clemson Tigers are champions of the college football world after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-31 on Monday night. In consecutive national title games against Alabama, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson amassed 825 yards passing, four passing touchdowns, 116 yards rushing, and a rushing score.
It was an acrobatic rushing score that kept Clemson's dreams of a second national title alive. Considering Alabama boasted the best rushing defense of the 2016 season, this was no easy feat.
The Tide and Tigers traded haymakers in the second half, with each score seeming more and more like the final knockout blow. Alabama TE OJ Howard took a pass from QB Jalen Hurts 68 yards for a touchdown in the final minutes of the third quarter to extend Alabama's lead to 24-14.
Howard scored a 53-yard touchdown against the Tigers in the 2015 national championship game. Yet the Tigers didn’t consider Howard’s score foreshadowing of an Alabama win. Clemson would score the game’s next two touchdowns to take a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left in regulation.
Alabama’s true freshman quarterback Hurts would scramble for a 30-yard touchdown to give the Tide what felt like the game-winning score, and a 31-28 lead with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Clemson's heroic effort and late-game ingenuity paved the way to college football mythology.
Few plays are as polarizing in college football as the “rub” play, where wide receivers throw their bodies in the way of defensive backs to free space for their teammates. But the Tigers saw an opportunity to score the game-winning touchdown, and exploited it. Watson hit WR Hunter Renfrow for the game winning score.
“We just knew they were going to be in cover zero,” Watson said in a postgame interview. “And when I saw the five, actually I think they were expecting us to run it up the middle, but it was the best play call to get it to one of our best players in space, and that was Hunter, and it was just a perfect time to call it.”
The touchdown pass to Renfrow left just 0:01 on the clock.
“To me, that moment, that epitomizes what our program is all about,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “You've got the five-star quarterback (Deshaun Watson) throwing the game-winning touchdown to the walk-on wideout (Hunter Renfrow), and that's the epitome of our team.”
It took every bit of this collective effort to dethrone the Crimson Tide from the summit of college football.
“Look, there's not one play in the game that makes a difference in a game,” Said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. “We could have done a lot of things a lot better. But I have to say that I was proud of the way our guys competed in the game, and just sorry for all of them that we didn't finish it better.”
For the first time in the 2016 season, play calling duties were not in the hands of former offensive coordinator, now head coach at FAU, Lane Kiffin. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called plays in Kiffin's absence.