Dabo Swinney steadfastly said throughout the college football season that his Clemson players were “winners” when inquiries were made about the Tigers’ ability to pull victories out of the fire on numerous occasions. Some would call it hyperbole on Swinney’s part; as talented as Clemson was many would argue there was some luck involved in some of those late-game rallies.
However, on Monday in the College Football Playoff national championship game against Alabama, there was no room for debate. The Tigers proved themselves to be the winners Swinney consistently declared them to be with their 35-31 victory.
While that last drive that ended with wide receiver Hunter Renfrow catching a 2-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Deshaun Watson with one second left in the game to give Clemson the victory will likely stand the test of time as the greatest play in Clemson history, the entire second half was a testament to the Tigers doing what was necessary to eventually avenge last season’s loss to the Crimson Tide in the national championship game.
Alabama led 14-7 at halftime, and when Watson couldn’t corral an errant snap on the opening possession of the second half and the Tide’s Ryan Anderson picked it up and appeared ready to run into the end zone, Renfrow made a tremendous tackle, stopping him at the Tiger 16-yard line. The defense held and ‘Bama had to settle for a field goal and a 17-7 lead.
Clemson responded with a touchdown drive two possessions later. That made it 17-14, thus keeping the pressure on Alabama. The Tigers answered each of the Tide’s final two touchdowns with touchdowns of their own on the ensuing possession, the final one obviously being Watson’s 2-yard toss to Renfrow.
The Tigers’ enormous cache of weapons on offense began to emerge as the game progressed as well. Of course, Watson breaking out of his first-half doldrums helped in that regard; the QB has to be putting the ball where it needs to be and the receivers have to catch it, and he took full advantage of the wide array of talent to which he can throw.
On the final drive, wide receiver Mike Williams made a couple of catches where only he could go and get it. Tight end Jordan Leggett made a ridiculous reception for a 17-yard gain and a first down that set Clemson up at the ‘Bama 9 with 19 seconds left.
Renfrow was a safety valve that Watson went to time and again – 10 times actually for 92 yards and two scores. Three other Tigers had over 90 yards in receptions – Williams 94 yards and one score on eight catches, Leggett 95 on seven catches and wide receiver Deon Cain 94 on five receptions.
Also, running back Wayne Gallman had three catches for 39 yards while rushing for 46 yards on 18 carries. That’s 85 total yards on 21 touches; not great, but it kept Alabama honest.
That’s a huge number of weapons to account for, something Alabama had not faced all year. Also, Clemson wore the Tide defense down in the second half. The Tigers ran 55 offensive plays to just 27 for Alabama in the second half and had only one 3-downs-and-out series among their nine full second-half possessions. The Tigers ran 99 offensive plays to just 66 for Alabama,
While Clemson’s offensive line may not have had a great game, it actually stood up well to Alabama’s front seven, which many considered otherworldly. Watson put it up 56 times, completing 36 for 420 yards and three scores. He was only sacked four times while Alabama had no quarterback hurries and broke up just one pass at the line.
Now the Tide did lay the wood to the Tigers on several occasions and Watson used his feet to escape some situations, but ‘Bama still only had two other tackles for loss. That means Clemson only found itself in extreme long-yardage situations on little more than a handful of occasions.
Watson, of course, was the main cog in the offense. When Watson was a freshman, Swinney spoke early and often about what a special player he was. If he had not proven that in the minds of everyone prior to Monday, he had to do so with that performance.
The Clemson team that won the 1981 national title came out of nowhere to win it. This group was expected by most to be back playing for the title, even though many thought it would again fall short.
Coming so close last season allowed the Tigers to see what needed to be done and they carried through with it.