Fifty-nine minutes and 54 seconds of mesmerizing football had already transpired on the night of Jan. 9, and if any in the crowd of 74,512 had departed Raymond James Stadium in Tampa before the clock showed 0:06, well, they'll never admit it. By that point, Clemson had run up 509 yards of offense. Alabama led, 31-28. Two yards stood between the Tigers and a national championship. Two yards — and an Alabama defense that, regardless of the chunks allowed that night and even on that drive, boasted five players who would be chosen in the first two rounds of the upcoming NFL draft.
"We know, in those situations, you don't need to press," said Artavis Scott, then a junior receiver at Clemson. "We've done this in practice 1,000 times. If we press in those situations, and you're not calm, that's when you can make mistakes."
With Clemson and Alabama set to play a third straight classic in the College Football Playoff — this one on New Year's Day in the national semifinal, rather than the past two years for the championship — the play that covered those final two yards will be shown ad nauseam, broken down frame-by-frame. It will, again and again, be deemed brilliant in South Carolina. It will, again and again, be railed against with fresh ire in Alabama.
But in the moment — with every hair on the back of every neck standing at full attention — the potential for mayhem was real. With six seconds to go, Clemson's coaches had to quickly determine what play to run. Clemson's players had to calmly run it, even if a championship hung in the balance.
"We had talked about this situation," said Jeff Scott, once a Clemson receiver, now the Tigers' co-offensive coordinator. "We felt like our season was a season of destiny. We told them, 'There's going to be some great ending tonight. We don't know what that ending's going to look like,' but there was a feeling that this game was going to come down to some special ending."
So here it was. Through his headset, Tony Elliott, another former Clemson wide receiver who now serves as Jeff Scott's partner in coordinating and calling the Tigers' offense, heard Scott speak. Fifteen years earlier, he and Elliott had been teammates, sharing practice time and position group meetings as players. Here, with six seconds left and a deficit to overcome, they had to be able to finish each other's sentence. They had to know what play to call. They had to answer to Coach Dabo Swinney and the entire Tiger fan base, rabid for its first national championship since 1981.
And they had to agree.
"Jeff said, 'I feel really, really good about this particular play,' " Elliott said.
Elliott agreed. And so they sent it in to quarterback Deshaun Watson and the offense: "Paul Right Crush."
The nature of the third version of the College Football Playoff's national championship game had already been outright frenetic. Clemson trailed once by 14 and twice by 10, and even when the Tigers scratched back and took a 28-24 lead on Wayne Gallman's one-yard run, there was still so much in the balance. The clock, as Clemson's offense went to the sideline, showed 4:38 remaining.
"Everyone was kind of freaking out," said Hunter Renfrow, then a sophomore receiver. "But I think we kind of knew we were going to have to score again."
In the press box, Elliott was communicating with the rest of the offensive coaching staff — including Swinney and Jeff Scott, who works from the sideline on game days — about two different scenarios: What if Alabama scored with a couple of minutes left, and what if the Tide scored and left the Tigers only several seconds?
When Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts broke no fewer than five tackles over the course of a ridiculous 30-yard run, the Crimson Tide had the lead again, and the Clemson coaches had their answer: There was 2:07 remaining.
"I looked up, and I started saying it right away," said Artavis Scott. "They left too much time on the clock."
"I remember thinking, 'It's not over,' " said Marlon Humphrey, then an Alabama defensive back. Humphrey knew that as many stars as the Tide carried on its defense, Clemson could counter them man-for-man with its offense — led by receiver Mike Williams, who had already caught seven passes, and Watson, the quarterback who had already thrown for 370 yards.
"I thought about how good Deshaun was playing," said Humphrey, now a rookie defensive back for the Baltimore Ravens, "and the kind of player he is, the situations he can come through in. It wasn't over."
Watson, by that point, was starting his 35th game for the Tigers, all in the offense designed and installed by former offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who had departed to become the head coach at SMU (and has since been named the coach at Arkansas). He was so in control of the flow and tempo of a game that Clemson was actually at its best in the situation it faced at that moment — running no-huddle, having to move the chains and score in a two-minute situation.
"It just fits with our mentality," Elliott said. "Play fast."
With the Tigers trailing by three and the ball on the Clemson 32-yard line after C.J. Fuller's kick return, the clock showed 2:01 remaining. A field goal would have tied the game, and if the Tigers gained just 40 yards, they would have been within the range of kicker Greg Huegel. But in the coaches' box, on the sideline, in the huddle — a field goal wasn't a thought.
"We weren't calling plays for an overtime," Jeff Scott said. "We were calling plays to win the game."
And so off they went — a leaping, in-the-middle-of-traffic grab by Williams for 24 yards, a strike from Watson to tight end Jordan Leggett for 17 more. Clemson's last time out taken, then Watson, looking for Williams, and a pass interference call. It left this: first and goal from the Alabama 2-yard line with those six seconds left. Scott and Elliott, the co-coordinators, had one more decision to make: Which weapon should we choose?
"We kind of have a saying that in big moments, be sure to find a way to get the ball to your best playmakers, to those guys that can make plays in critical spots," Jeff Scott said. "Hunter Renfrow has been that guy for us."
When Renfrow left his home town of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the fall of 2014, he had never played receiver. He had been an option quarterback at Socastee High, and there were plenty of people who told him he had a brighter future as a baseball player than he did at the FBS level of football, for which he was not offered a scholarship.
But Renfrow had always wanted to play at the highest level, and he always wanted to be a receiver. His primary experience at the position: the backyard at Thanksgiving. Before you dismiss such a notion as some sort of "experience," know Renfrow is the fourth of six children. Know that his father, Tim, played football at Wofford. And know Tim Renfrow is one of 11 kids. By last count, Hunter Renfrow has 63 first cousins.
Now, what can you learn about trying to catch passes in that kind of family football game?
"There's no flags in the backyard," Renfrow said.
Still, the obstacles were significant. When he arrived at Clemson, Renfrow weighed 160 pounds. He walked on to the Tigers. In his first practice, by his own estimate, he dropped perhaps six of the 12 passes thrown his way. He remembers thinking: "I don't know if I'm good enough."
The Clemson coaching staff made the easy decision to redshirt him, and they stuck him on the scout team. At that point, Morris was still running the offense, and Elliott and Scott were among his position coaches. Occasionally, the offensive staff would hear stories about the walk-on receiver who was starting to make plays against Clemson's first-team defense, which allowed fewer yards per game than any unit in the country. Renfrow worked against T.J. Green and Mackensie Alexander, defensive backs who would eventually be taken in the second round of the NFL draft. When the offensive coaches saw Renfrow in drills the following spring, he was a different player.
"He started to believe, 'Hey, I can do this,' " Scott said.
By the time Clemson got the ball for its decisive possession against Alabama, Renfrow was not only a known commodity, but a burgeoning force. As a redshirt freshman in 2015, he caught 33 passes and five touchdowns, including two scores in Clemson's 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national title game. As a sophomore, he had 42 catches and five touchdowns before the final drive started.
"I just remember thinking, 'What's going on with him that he's getting open so much?' " said Humphrey.
Renfrow's coaches and teammates knew. First, his athleticism is underestimated. But Scott, who serves as the receivers coach as well as a coordinator, also recognizes the way Renfrow runs, with his torso bent over his knees so he can get lower to the ground. This allows Renfrow to change directions — and therefore, get open — more effectively than other receivers with the same ability.
"He can put his foot in the ground going full-speed and make a 90-degree cut as good as any receiver I've had at Clemson," Scott said. "He also just has that sixth sense — when to break out, when to continue a route, when to stop a route."
And he knew how to get open on "Paul Right Crush."
Down three points with six seconds left and the ball at the 2-yard line, the Clemson coaching staff felt confident the Tigers could get off a snap and, if the play wasn't there, Watson would be able to throw the ball out of bounds, leaving enough time for the Tigers to kick what would have been the game-tying field goal.
Scott and Elliott, working off the play sheet they had drawn up with the offensive staff in the week leading up to the game, essentially needed a two-point conversion. Each looked at his list of plays. On the field, Artavis Scott was all but jumping up and down. Scott had 245 catches in his career, more than any player in school history. But with the championship in the balance, he wanted the ball to go to another man: Renfrow.
"I'm telling you, man," Scott, now on the practice squad of the Los Angeles Chargers, said by phone last week. "I don't get the credit, but I called that play. I looked over at the sideline and gave them that little signal."
The play was a natural for a variety of reasons. With the ball on the left hash mark, Watson, a right-handed passer, would be able to roll right, setting up a natural throwing motion. The play would also develop on the wide side of the field, giving Scott, who would be lined up wide, and Renfrow, lined up in the slot, more room to operate.
Plus, the play had an adjustment for whatever defense the Tide threw at the Tigers. Clemson's coaching staff had studied enough film of Alabama — which is to say, all of it — that it knew the Tide almost always played an aggressive, man-to-man defense inside the 5-yard line. But part of the appeal of "Crush" was that, should Alabama try a counter-strategy and come with zone coverage, Scott would know to break off his assignment and run a corner route to the back right of the end zone.
"That particular play," Jeff Scott said, "had an answer for both man and zone."
Still, the Tigers expected man. In that case, Artavis Scott wouldn't be the intended target, but he would be the key. Scott's job: run toward the man covering Renfrow and, in the words of the Clemson staff, provide enough of a "disruption" to allow Renfrow, running a shallow pattern to his right, to come open.
Now, in Alabama, that "disruption" is known to this day as a "pick," and legions of Crimson faithful will point out that, in a marquee game between Notre Dame and Florida State in the fall of 2014, the Irish's go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds was wiped out by a penalty because a receiver had illegally picked a Seminoles defensive back, not to mention that in an on-field interview for the whole world to see just after the Clemson-Alabama, Watson referred to "crush" as a "pick play."
"I had a feeling they were going to do a nice pick route," Humphrey said.
But if Artavis Scott is the key to the play, then getting him to run the disruption in a legal fashion is the key to the key. "There's an art to coaching it," said Jeff Scott, and the Tigers had run it so often — Renfrow remembers the first touchdown of the Tigers' spring game coming on "Crush" — that Artavis Scott was an expert in its execution.
"To be honest, it's really not that difficult," Scott said. "You're running a route. You're actually running a route, and you have to read the man you're covering. If he stays there and tries to in-and-out you, you run your route. If he's in man, you do the rest."
The first part of the call — "Paul" — describes the formation, and the Tigers started with an empty backfield. "Window-dressing," Jeff Scott called it, because they had run the play against Ohio State the week before, and they wanted to disguise it. Watson, in the shotgun, then had Gallman go in motion and join him, set to his right, before he took the snap.
From the coaches' box, Elliott peered down. He saw Humphrey lined up over Artavis Scott wide to the right. He saw junior defensive back Tony Brown covering Renfrow in the slot. Their demeanor showed what Clemson's coaches suspected: they were level with each other, locked in on their men.
"Once I saw them line up," Elliott said, "I knew we had it."
When Watson took the snap, he rolled right, seven quick steps. That allowed Scott time to run diagonally into the end zone, where he and Humphrey came into contact.
"When I went to run my route, I feel his hands all over my back," Scott said. "He tackled me. If you watch it, that's what happens. Everyone always says, 'It's a pick play.' I'm still trying to wrap my head around that. Truth be told, he tackled me."
In the locker room after the game, several Alabama defenders adamantly argued the play was illegal. For his part nearly a year later, Humphrey is diplomatic.
"It was legal," he said. "If it wasn't legal, they would've thrown a flag."
With Scott and Humphrey creating the disruption, Brown, the defensive back lined up over Renfrow, had to run around them both. Renfrow, too, entered the mix.
"I almost tripped on Artavis's feet," Renfrow said. "But we've run it so many times. We know the depth. We know how to read it. We know how it works."
When it works, Renfrow ends up wide open on the goal line. And there he stood.
"People ask me all the time, 'Were you worried you were going to drop it?' " Renfrow said by phone last week. "But we've just done it so many times, it's second nature. I just remember looking, making sure there was no yellow on the ground."
Watson made the last of his 56 throws. Renfrow made the last of his 10 catches. Renfrow rolled over, popped up on the sideline, and looked. The yellow never came. So he jumped into the arms of Leggett, the senior tight end, as his teammates mobbed him. The clock showed one second left.
"Just being a college football fan," Renfrow said, "you know what it means."
But just being a college football fan, you might not know how it got there. From Chad Morris's original Clemson playbook to spring practices using a former walk-on wide receiver to the call sheet of Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott as a potential two-point conversion play for the national championship: "Paul Right Crush," the play that won Clemson a title.