TAMPA — For days and years and decades to come in the town of Clemson, through swaths of South Carolina and in fervent Clemson pockets beyond, they’ll talk about the nerve-ravaging fourth quarter witnessed by droves of lucky ticket holders in waves of orange among 74,512 on Monday night. They’ll talk about how their Clemson football team, so accustomed to inconvenience through a tightroping season, finally caught unbeaten Alabama at the end, with one last, tantalizing second left on the clock.
They’ll talk about how a masterful college quarterback, Deshaun Watson, took possession twice in the last 6:33, facing three-point deficits both times, and how he moved Clemson 88 and 68 yards against Alabama’s defense of giants. They’ll recollect how, with six seconds left and still trailing by three, indomitable Clemson scored on Watson’s two-yard touchdown pass to the 5-foot-11, 180-pound wonder Hunter Renfrow for his 10th catch of the night, and the Clemson sideline went berserk.
They’ll talk and they’ll talk about this 35-31 win in the College Football Playoff national championship game in Raymond James Stadium. They might even rewatch the thing. When they do, they will see a program that had finished a bold climb and become all grown up, redefining itself in its eighth full season under Coach Dabo Swinney.
They had a third-year, graduated, NFL-bound quarterback, Watson, who said he “just smiled” when Alabama scored to lead 31-28 with 2:07 left, then told his teammates, “Let’s be legendary. Let’s go be great.”
They had a head coach who, through the headsets toward offensive coordinator Tony Elliott as Clemson neared the goal line and forwent a tying field goal, said, “Hey boys, if you want to be a champion, we’ve got to go win it.”
They had a former walk-on receiver, Renfrow, who would say, “It’s almost like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this is all a dream.”
When Clemson won its first national title in 35 years and its second overall, it not only avenged the madcap 45-40 defeat to Alabama from the same final stage last year, and it not only left Alabama among those rare teams in all sports that never lost until just before the curtain dropped.
It joined two of college football’s sovereign types, Ohio State and Alabama, among the first three champions in the newfangled College Football Playoff era. More than that, the long-ambitious South Carolinian program of William “The Refrigerator” Perry and Dwight Clark, of Homer Jordan and Tajh Boyd, of coaches like Frank Howard and Danny Ford, had run a 14-1 path with Ohio State and Alabama as its closing carcasses. It had beaten all the four teams that won the previous seven national titles, counting Auburn and Florida State.
That enabled the loquacious Swinney to say, “The [tiger] paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight,” and, “There was only one lid left on the program, and that was to win the whole dad-gum thing,” and, “We were the better team,” and, “There was no upset tonight.” He also sprinkled in, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stomach watching that one anytime soon,” and, of course, “What a fight.”
For the final step up an unforgiving ladder, the Tigers regenerated their knack for handling difficulty, and they did it against a No. 1 team that had not faced a single real scare all the four-month season. Just as they had forged through late-game uncertainty against Auburn, Louisville, N.C. State, Florida State and Virginia Tech, they treated themselves to second-half deficits of 17-7 and 24-14 against Alabama.
They suffered the exploits of a fast, bruising, rising, sophomore Alabama running back, Bo Scarbrough, who gained 93 yards and scored two longish first-half touchdowns of 25 and 37 yards before leaving injured in the third quarter. In noting that Scarbrough might have helped with clock drainage late, Alabama Coach Nick Saban, winner of five national titles, extolled Clemson and Swinney and said, “I think every loss is very painful, and my loss is really the bad feeling for the players, who’ve worked so hard to create this opportunity for themselves.”
His defense, No. 1 in the land in all the vital departments, repeatedly made Watson look primed for an ice tub. Once they turned him into an imperiled helicopter before he hit the ground. Another time they surrounded him with the roughly 800 pounds of Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Rashaan Evans for an early-fourth-quarter sack that looked pivotal. Other times they treated him to the horror that can come from linebacker Reuben Foster.
He stayed upright and more. He completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards , even more than the deeply impressive 405 for which he threw against Alabama 12 months prior. When the confetti fell on the Tigers happily rather than cruelly, they had gained 511 yards, almost their total when their 550 last year maddened the champion Alabama. But from their 21-point fourth quarter that closed it, it’s those last 154 yards about which they’ll talk.
Those yards included a 26-yard catch from a great receiver, Mike Williams, a leap upward with two defenders packed around him. They included Watson’s 15-yard run to the 1-yard line, which he closed with an appropriate flying leap. Then, on the final drive, after Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts had scrambled in dramatically from the 30-yard line with 2:07 remaining, Clemson and Watson stared at the 31-28 deficit and looked like people who knew where they were and knew what to do.
“I just wanted to sign my name and end it with an exclamation point,” Watson said.
Williams made a leaping 24-yard catch against defender Anthony Averett, a very picture of otherworldly talent and determination. The clock dwindled to half a minute. Watson completed a little, huge six-yard pass to Renfrow on third and three, getting Clemson to the Alabama 26-yard line with 22 seconds left.
“It was calm,” Watson said. It looked it. On second down after a spike, he rifled a 16-yard throw that tight end Jordan Leggett reached out and snared. An Alabama interference penalty in the end zone brought the ball to the 2-yard line. Six seconds remained.
Watson took the snap and hurried right. When he flung his last Clemson pass after three decorated seasons, it actually looked kind of uncomplicated. Renfrow welcomed it easily into his taut gut in the right corner of the end zone. For a long, long time, people wearing orange will talk about that.