GLENDALE, Ariz. — As the mastodon of the college football 2010s, Alabama long since proved it can block, tackle, run, pass and ruin the Saturdays of ambitious opponents. Yet when it secured its whopping fourth national title in the last seven years on a compelling Monday night, it suddenly brandished another knack.
It turned to fine trickery. That trickery forged a shocking turn in a fascinating game, and that trickery showed a healthy respect for Clemson and its maddening marvel of a quarterback, Deshaun Watson. When the Alabama talent that runs deeply all the way through special teams finally finished off an outstanding Clemson, 45-40, before 75,765 in University of Phoenix Stadium, one fluttery play figured to linger in memory among all the dazzling ones.
With Alabama having lumbered into a 24-24 tie with 10 minutes 34 seconds remaining, and with Clemson appearing the more versatile offensive side, the Crimson Tide tried a novel onside kick. Kicker Adam Griffith, the 192-pound teammate of all the fleet 300-pound giants, executed an artful popup to the right side. Freshman Marlon Humphrey, out on that edge as Clemson squeezed inward to match Alabama’s formation, and with no orange impediment in sight, settled under that wafting kick, fielded it and planted down at midfield.
“We call it a pop kick,” the dynastic Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. “I thought we had it in the game any time we wanted to do it. I made the decision to do it because the score was 21-21” — actually, 24-24 — “and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped, and it felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win.”
It would prove so momentous that Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney would call it “a huge, huge play,” while Alabama tight end O.J. Howard would say, “It got the sideline energized,” while Saban later cracked, “If we wouldn’t have got that, y’all [media] would be killing me now.”
A game with several turns in it had seen another. Within two plays, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Howard, alone behind a defender who slipped.
That bolstered the game stardom of Howard, who in the third quarter had gone loose on the right sideline to catch a 53-yard touchdown, not long after star Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander exited for good with injury. With 3:48 left, Howard would go still further, turning a short reception into a 61-yard gain that set up the clinching touchdown — and that, in a quarter that included teammate Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Praising Howard for his patience during an in-season lull that saw him fairly disappear from the offense, Saban said, “I would say it’s bad coaching on my part, that he didn’t have the opportunity to do that all year long.” By “that,” he meant Howard’s three catches for 59 yards against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl national semifinal, and his five for a massive 208 against Clemson.
All of it and more proved necessary to offset Watson, the sophomore quarterback whose coming return next year promises a feast for football eyewitnesses. In a performance that conjured a famous one from 10 Januarys ago, Watson often turned Alabama’s frightening defense into an outfit strangely baffled. He scrambled for 73 yards. He threw for 405 and four touchdowns. He piloted a Clemson offense that sprang for 550 total yards against a defense that spent the first 14 games allowing 256 per. He made the game’s students think of Vince Young, the quarterback who, in possibly the sport’s greatest performance, ran for 200 and threw for 267 in Texas’ 41-38, national-title win over Southern California.
Saban called him “a fantastic player.” Swinney, asked if Watson is the country’s best player, said, “No question.” When a reporter asked the diligent Watson where he needed to improve for next season, guard Eric Mac Lain jumped ahead of Watson’s answer, leaned into a microphone and said, “Nowhere.”
The quarterback from Gainesville, Ga., had shone as the third-place finisher in the Heisman Trophy voting, even as the Heisman winner, Derrick Henry, shone also, with 158 rushing yards on a hefty 36 carries . Both helped their teams in a game without losers, a game in which both sides finished 14-1, and Clemson finally lost after tearing through some of the sport’s other aristocracy, with wins over Notre Dame, Florida State and Oklahoma , for a program with a cherished national title tucked 34 years in its past. “It’s been a long time since we stood on top of the mountain,” Swinney said, “and we’re not quite there, but we can see it, and we’ll get there.”
With all of Clemson’s will and Alabama’s might, it almost went forgotten for a while that this madcap game, all full of big gains and surprises, wound up being the one that brought a fifth national championship to Saban, placing him one behind Bear Bryant, the Alabama historic figure, and one ahead of such big names as John McKay and Frank Leahy.
The second College Football Playoff under the four-team format had produced dreary semifinals that wreaked routs of 37-17 and 38-0, but the finale made those slogs seem worthwhile. The first half ended 14-14 and steeped in suspense. Henry already had 20 carries for 128 yards. Watson already directed two masterful touchdown drives, baffling Alabama’s defense with his scrambling. Eventually, when he escaped a thicket for 18 yards in the third quarter, he prompted Saban to hurl his headset in frustration.
That Alabama defensive front, considered the best unit of any kind in the sport, did put a clamp on Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, whose eight carries for eight yards in the first half gave no hint of the 1,482 yards he hogged in the first 14 games. Gallman later left briefly with injury before having a better second half and finishing with 45 yards. The Clemson defensive front, overlooked next to the Alabama defensive front, sacked Alabama quarterback Jake Coker four times in the first half and five times overall, with end Kevin Dodd hoarding three.
One mistake did turn things early. It came with 11:58 left in the second quarter. Against a No. 1-ranked Alabama defense that had allowed only 13.4 points per game, Clemson already had a 14-7 lead, and it looked to have Alabama baffled with its hurry-up and its helter-skelter. On a second-and-3 from Clemson’s 24-yard line, Watson had Ray-Ray McCloud running behind a defender along the right side of the field, but before Watson tossed his seemingly accurate 15-yard pass, he failed to see Eddie Jackson, the Alabama safety who had discerned what was what. Once Jackson slid over and intercepted the pass, Alabama had the ball at the Clemson 42 and, more significantly, it had stemmed the Clemson tide.
That, however, could not last. Watson and the new Clemson would not let it. To surmount him, Alabama would have to try just about everything.