Special teams errors, big plays end Tigers’ national championship bid

By Robbie Tinsley
Courtesy The Journal

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Clemson’s 17-game winning streak, its 51 straight wins when leading in the fourth quarter and its national championship hopes were dashed with a three-play swing.

And mistakes that the top-ranked Tigers were able to overcome during their 14-0 start to the season proved too much against No. 2 Alabama, as the Tide won their fourth title in seven years with a 45-40 victory on Monday night.

A brilliant, bone-chillingly gutsy decision by Alabama head coach Nick Saban on an onside kick in a tie game with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter was followed by 51-yard touchdown throw from Jake Coker to O.J. Howard on a busted coverage to give Alabama a 31-24 lead. Then after Clemson kicked a field goal to cut the Tide’s advantage to four points, Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff for a 95-yard touchdown for the back-breaking blow at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said it was night where the nation “saw why we’ve been so successful.”

Rex Brown/Courtesy The Journal Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson walks off the field following the Tigers’ 45-40 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game in Glendale, Ariz., on Monday night.

Rex Brown/Courtesy The Journal
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson walks off the field following the Tigers’ 45-40 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game in Glendale, Ariz., on Monday night.

“But championship football is a game of a few plays, and that’s really what this one came down to — just a few plays,” he said. “Give them credit for that.”

Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry finished with 158 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, but it was Howard — the game’s Most Valuable Player — who did the most damage to Clemson. Not only did he catch a pair of 50-plus-yard touchdown passes, but he also had a 63-yard catch-and-run to help the Tide seal the victory late in the fourth quarter.

He finished with 208 yards on just five catches — a per-reception average of 41.6 yards.

“We just had three busts,” Swinney said of Howard’s three big receptions. “We had three critical errors where we just didn’t do our job.”

In all, Alabama had four plays of 50 or more yards — Howard’s three catches and a 50-yard touchdown run by Henry in the first quarter — which accounted for 217 of its 473 yards of total offense.

It was the onside kick that Swinney deemed the most important play of the game. Clemson had come back from an early second-half deficit to lead 24-21 and after forcing Alabama to settle for a game-tying field goal with 10:34 to go, he felt the momentum was still the Tigers’.

But as Alabama’s Adam Griffith ran to kick the ball off, he dinked it over toward the right sideline. There was a huge gap in the Clemson kickoff unit, and the first player to run under the ball was the Tide’s Marlon Humphrey.

Saban had seen when the Tide lined up in a narrow kickoff formation that Clemson also stayed narrow.

“I thought we had it in the game any time we wanted to do it,” he said. “I made the decision to do it because the score was 21-21 and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped.

“I 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 was a huge play,” Swinney said. “But then we followed it up with a bust for a touchdown. So it was a combination of mistakes. It was one thing to give up that play, but that doesn’t mean you don’t go out and do your job on another play.”

Howard — who Coker found for a wide open 53-yard touchdown down the sideline for the first score of the second half — was this time given the middle of the field to roam for an easy 51-yard score.

Ahead 31-24 just 50 seconds after trailing 24-21, Alabama never trailed again.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw four touchdowns and accounted for 478 yards — 405 passing and 73 rushing, more than Alabama’s team yardage — in a losing effort. Already over 1,000 rushing yards coming in, he went over 4,000 passing yards to become the first 4,000-1,000 quarterback in NCAA history.

The stats and milestone weren’t much comfort for Watson after the game.

“At the end of the day, I wanted the W,” he said. “All the stats don’t really matter to me. I just wanted to get the win and do something that we haven’t done in 34 years. But at the end of the day, I love my teammates, love my brothers, and you’ll see us in Tampa next year.

Tampa, for those curious, is where the College Football Playoff national championship game will be held for the 2016 season.