Tigers score in title game’s final second to top Alabama, earn second national championship

By Scott Adamson
Courtesy The Journal

TAMPA, Fla. — The reigning king of college football, Alabama, was unwilling to give its crown away.

So a gritty, magnificent Clemson team took it by force.

Dabo Swinney’s No. 2 Tigers reached the summit on Monday night before 74,512 fans at Raymond James Stadium, defeating the No. 1 Crimson Tide 35-31 in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

It was one of the most exciting finishes in the annals of the Football Bowl Subdivision, eclipsing last year’s battle between the two teams that ended in a 45-40 Crimson Tide victory.


Photos courtesy Rex Brown/The Journal
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and senior captain Ben Boulware celebrate after the Tigers’ 35-31 win over Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship in Tampa, Fla. The win gave Clemson its second national title in school history.

“(Alabama) lost the wrong game this year, just like we lost the wrong one last year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “What a fight. That has to be one of the greatest games of all time. To have to go down the field and win the game, that’s what it’s all about. They fought for every play.”

The sequence of events that ultimately resulted in a No. 1 finish will live among Clemson faithful for as long as the game is played.

In the fourth quarter, the Tigers moved 88 yards in six plays to set the table for their first championship since the 1981 season.

There were big runs (Deshaun Watson rambled for 15 down to the 1), key passes (Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett both had big gainers) and clutch calls as the Tigers chipped away at Bama’s vaunted defense.

What appeared to be the clincher came when Wayne Gallman punched it in from the 1-yard line at the 4:38 juncture to put Clemson ahead for the first time.

Greg Huegel’s PAT made the score 28-24, but there was plenty of drama left.

Alabama got a big gainer off a halfback pass its next turn with the sticks, and QB Jalen Hurts did the rest, rushing 30 yards for a touchdown just 2:07 from the finish.

The PAT put the Crimson Tide up 31-28, and the Tigers had 127 seconds to win it or force overtime.

They opted for the “W,” traveling 68 yards on nine cool-as-cucumber plays, with Hunter Renfrow reeling in a 2-yard TD pass from Watson with just one second to go.

“We knew they were going to play Cover 0 inside the five, and all we needed was a good pick by (Artavis Scott),” Watson said. “And Tay picked him and Renfrow got in the end zone and I just kind of threw the ball and made sure he caught it, and that’s what he did.”


Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson hurdles an Alabama defender during the fourth quarter of Monday night’s national championship game.




Watson, the game’s offensive MVP, was 36-of-56 passing for 420 yards and three TDs and also rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s the best player in the country,” Swinney said of his signal caller. “If anybody doubts that, it’s ridiculous. He didn’t lose out on the Heisman, the Heisman lost out on him. This was his Heisman tonight.”

Renfrow had 10 catches for 92 yards and two TDs, while Williams had eight catches, 94 yards and a score.

“I’m thinking, with six seconds, we’re rolling right, even if we get sacked, we can still call timeout,” Renfrow said. “Just an unbelievable play by Deshaun. Artavis Scott did a great job on the outside getting a little rub, and it was an awesome play call by our coaches.”

Ben Boulware was defensive MVP, joining Carlos Watkins and Kendall Joseph with six tackles.

Jadar Johnson had four solo tackles and three assists.

After O.J. Howard — who ran wild against the Tigers in last year’s title bout — scored on a 68-yard pass play late in the third quarter to give Nick Saban and company a 24-14 advantage, it looked as though Bama was destined for a repeat.

Clemson had other plans, though, as Williams scored on an 11-yard pass play with exactly 14 minutes remaining.

Huegel’s extra point after the score pulled Clemson to within a field goal at 24-21, and another Tide-Tiger clash was headed for a second consecutive fantastic finish.

“I think our guys played really, really hard,” Saban said. “I think they made some fantastic catches and some great throws and catches, and the last couple drives when they had the ball, and you know, we just didn’t make a play when we needed to. We needed to get a sack. We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made the plays and we didn’t.”

With his team leading 14-7 entering the third quarter, Alabama’s Ryan Anderson stripped Gallman of the ball on the first drive of the second half, putting the Tide in business at the Clemson 16.

The Tiger defense kept the Tide out of the end zone, but Adam Griffith’s 27-yard field goal upped the advantage to 17-7.

tigersinset3At the 7:10 mark, though, Clemson made its biggest move.

Starting at the Alabama 42 after a shanked punt, the ACC champs scored in four plays — the last a 24-yard Watson-to-Renfrow TD connection.

Huegel kicked the PAT, and at 17-14 there was nothing yet settled in Tampa.

At the outset, there was little indication this matchup would fall into the “one for the ages” category.

After holding Alabama to a three-and-out on the game’s opening possession, Clemson moved the markers on its first turn with the ball. However, the drive stalled at the Crimson Tide 39, and a fourth-down play went nowhere.

Bama took advantage of the gamble, going 59 yards in three plays to get on the board. A roughing-the-passer penalty helped set the table for Bo Scarbrough’s 25-yard scoring scamper, a dash that left Johnson twisting.

The kick put the defending champs in front, 7-0, at the 9:23 mark of the first quarter.

Defenses dominated the rest of the quarter, with Tanner Muse partially blocking a Tide punt and the Alabama defense recovering a fumble at the Tigers’ 35.

But the teams swapped ends of the field with no further scoring.

That all changed at the 10:42 mark of the second quarter when Scarbrough broke loose again.

Capping a 74-yard, five-play march, Scarbrough scooted around end from 37 yards out — breaking a tackle along the way — and went the distance to put the Tide up by two scores.

But back came the Tigers.

Midway through the second stanza, a screen pass to Deon Cain went for 43 yards, and a 26-yard third-down toss to Leggett gave Swinney’s team a first down at the enemy 13.

Watson capped off a seven play, 87-yard journey with an 8-yard run on a drive that took just 1:43.

Trailing 14-7 at the break, Clemson was back in it.

Thirty minutes later, the Tigers were alone at the top of the college football world.

“The difference in the game was the love we had for each other,” Swinney said. “This was a blessing, and it’s surreal. Eight years ago, (former Clemson athletic director) Terry Don Phillips gave me a chance to lead this program. We set out to put Clemson back on top. We came up short last year, but tonight the Clemson flag is flying at the top of that mountain.”