The rematch lived up to every ounce of the hype. Here’s how it went down…
The game started as Alabama games generally do: the Tide defense physically assaulted their opponents into a holding pattern of stuffed runs and 3rd and longs while the ground game powered them out to a 14-0 lead. Social media, in its infinite wisdom, joked that we’d seen this movie before, with people like Skip Bayless firing off some of those piping-hot takes that he’s become so revered for:
Rare form. In his defense though, at 14-0 it did feel like it was getting away from Clemson. Alabama was controlling the line of scrimmage, giving Gallman no room to run and Watson no time to throw, and beyond that, Mike Williams hadn’t look like himself since being knocked out of the game by a vicious (and unflagged) helmet-to-helmet hit in the 1st quarter. The difference last night was that Clemson didn’t flinch the way that so many other teams do.
The Tigers kept fighting, and the offense finally found their footing about midway through the 2nd quarter when Deon Cain broke a tunnel screen for about 50 yards down the left sideline. A few plays later, Watson hit Leggett down the seam for 26 yards to the Alabama 13, and a few plays after that, Watson himself scampered around the left end for a touchdown. 14-7. Just like that, Clemson reproved to themselves that they could move the ball on Alabama, and just like that we had a ball game on our hands.
The 3rd quarter nearly started with disaster for the Tigers. Ryan Anderson ripped the ball away from Wayne Gallman on Clemson’s opening drive and was on his to the endzone before Renfrow chased him down, saving the touchdown and arguably the game. The teams traded punts and touchdowns for the remainder of the 3rd before Clemson closed the gap to 3 with a Mike Williams touchdown early in the 4th.
The Tigers finally broke through to take the lead with 4:38 to go when Gallman capped a 6 play, 88-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run. It was just the second time all season that Alabama had trailed in the 2nd half of a game, and was the first time they’d trailed in a 4th quarter. To their credit, the Tide rallied to retake a 31-28 lead with just 2:31 remaining, but in hindsight all that did was set the stage for one of the best quarterbacks around to do what he does best.
Watson took the field at his own 32, and after 3 quick strikes he’d moved Clemson to the Alabama 33. One run, two passes, and a pass interference call later and Clemson was knocking at the door with a 1st and goal at the Alabama 2 with 9 seconds left.
You probably know what happened next: Clemson went back to the same pick play that sprung Williams for his touchdown, and Watson threw a dart to Renfrow for the game-winning score. The Tigers ran the remaining second off the clock with an onside kick, and that was that. Comeback complete, champions dethroned, and a storybook ending for one of the greatest college quarterbacks of this century.
I argued in my game preview that the experience of going toe-to-toe with the Tide a year ago would Clemson’s most valuable asset in this year’s contest, and I think that absolutely proved to be the case. A 14-0 hole against Alabama can feel insurmountable (and it usually is, Saban was 97-0 when leading by 10+ points before last night), but Clemson knew that it wasn’t because they’d nearly come back from 11 points down against the Tide just last year. Quite simply, they believed.
Alabama fans have predictably griped about the no-call on that last pick play (not an indictment, who wouldn’t), but looking back I think they’ll admit that they were well-beaten by a worthy adversary.
Consider that Clemson had 31 first downs to Alabama’s 16, or that they converted 7/18 3rd downs compared to 2/15, or that they outgained the Tide 511-376, despite going -2 in the turnover battle. Bama had plenty of chances to put the game away in that 1st half and Clemson simply wouldn’t let them do it.
In the end it came down, as these games so often do, to who has the best player, and last night, the best player on that field was Deshaun Watson. 5/5 on that final drive, and the last pass of his college career won his school the title. Not too bad. A well played game by both teams, and a well-deserved National Championship for the Clemson Tigers.
3rd Star – Reuben Foster – LB – Alabama
Had Bama won this guy would’ve been the POG. Foster was absolutely everywhere last night, finishing with 12 tackles (6 solo), a sack, and a TFL. He set to tone for Bama’s defense from Clemson’s opening drive when he delivered that vicious hit to Watson, and continued his tenacious play throughout the game, fighting through blocks, cracking skulls, and providing an endless supply of the general swagger that Bama has become known for over the past decade. Bama came up short in the end, but Foster left it all out there for everyone to see and I’d be shocked if he fell out of the Top 10 in the upcoming NFL Draft. That’s the type of dude that will walk into your squad and change the culture over night. Just one impressive SOB.
2nd Star – Hunter Renfrow – WR – Clemson
The dude shows up in big games. What else can you say? Renfrow averaged 3.4 catches and just a shade over 40 yards receiving per game this season, but for the second year in a row he absolutely torched the nation’s best defense when the lights shined the brightest. 10 catches, 92 yards, 2 TD, and one game-saving tackle on Ryan Anderson (more on this below); hard to believe he was only a preferred walk-on just over 2 years ago.
1st Star – Deshaun Watson – QB – Clemson
Has to be. Watson put in one of the gutsiest (?) Championship performances in recent memory, and did nothing less than cement his legacy as Clemson’s GOAT player. For the 2nd year in a row he carved up a team that’s not supposed up get carved up, and he did it despite being battered by a ferocious Alabama defense right from the game’s opening possession. 36/56, 420 yards, and 3 TD/0 INT passing, and 21 carries for a further 42 yards and touchdown on the ground. That means Bama got at least 21 shots in on him last night without even counting the times they got to him with the pass rush (and they were definitely getting their money’s worth), and the guy just kept coming. Just a spectacular performance. There aren’t many quarterbacks who have stared down the barrel against the Tide like that over the last decade. Watson’s now done it twice in two years. Nick Saban has to be absolutely sick and tired of the guy, and there’s not much higher praise than that.
Unheralded Play of the Game
Hunter Renfrow running down Ryan Anderson on that fumble return. The Tide were up 14-7 to start the 2nd half when Ryan Anderson stripped Wayne Gallman. Anderson scooped the ball up and looked well on his way to rumbling for yet another Alabama defensive score when Hunter Renfrow came out of nowhere to run him down and save the touchdown. Clemson’s defense took the field and promptly held the Tide to a 3 and out and 3 points, which was damn impressive in its own right, but none of it would’ve been possible had Renfrow not been so Johnny on the spot. Just one of the many big plays last night from Clemson’s ultimate big game playmaker, but this one saved 4 points and kept the game in check.
Actual Play of the Game
Obviously Watson’s game-winner to Renfrow. A beautifully designed play, and very similar to the one they’d run for Mike Williams for their third score. Bama fans have spent the past 12 hours crying foul, but there are already several explanations on the Internet as to why it was a legal play. Basically, pick plays are called pick plays when the picker initiates contact with the pickee. In both instances last night though, the picker was jammed off the line by the guy guarding him, so while he does end up obstructing the pickee’s path to the ball, he’s certainly not the one who initiated the contact. Clemson knew Bama would play it this way in those final seconds because they’d done it to them earlier in the quarter, and they baited them right into it a second time. Great scouting by Clemson’s staff, brilliant play call for the situation, and perfectly executed by Watson, Scott, and Renfrow. Alabama: finally beaten by their own physicality.
Do we get our Best of 3 next year?
Unfortunately, I think we may have to wait for our rubber match. The road back will be tough for both teams, but it looks like especially tough sledding for Clemson.
The Tigers bring a ton back on defense and should be very, very good again next year, but it’ll next to impossible for that next QB, whoever it may be, to fill Watson’s shoes, and that’s before you consider that they’re also losing Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, and Artavis Scott. Regardless of how strong their defense should be, that’s a ton of production to replace. You also have to consider that Florida State should be very good next year, with Louisville, VT, Miami, and Pitt all looking extremely frisky, as well. The ACC is shaping up to be the best in the country next year, so winning a conference title and punching a third straight ticket to the Playoffs is anything but a certainty.
Bama’s path back seems a bit more manageable. They lose a lot defensively, but the Tide isn’t exactly a team that’s in the business of rebuilding, and their coffers are surely already stocked with their next wave of superstars. They’ll also return the entire back end that started last night’s championship game (godspeed Eddie Jackson), which should hopefully help them combat the vertical passing attacks that have turned into such an Achilles heel over the past few years. Most importantly though, Jalen Hurts and rest of the backfield will be back, and the freshman signal caller in particular should be much better in his 2nd full year as a starter. Overall, the Tide should again be the class of the SEC, so unless someone else rises up to challenge them (Auburn, LSU, Georgia, and Florida are all ranked in ESPN’s aptly named Way Too Early 2017 Top 25), I think they can reasonably expect to win the conference and be back in the Playoffs next year.