TAMPA – Oh, those walk-on wide receivers.
Clemson had one catching and one coaching on Monday night, and turned it into a national championship – with one second to spare.
The Tigers wore down the Alabama defense and scored four second-half touchdowns – including a 2-yard catch by walk-on Hunter Renfrow from game MVP Deshaun Watson that gave Clemson its first national title since 1981, and the first for Tiger coach and former Alabama walk-on Dabo Swinney.
Alabama scored a potential game-winner on Jalen Hurts’ 30-yard touchdown run with 2:07 to play. But the Tigers, who had more than 500 yards in total offense, delivered one more march covering 68 yards for the winning score.
“They made the plays and we didn’t,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Give Clemson credit. We could have done some things better, but I was proud of the way our guys competed.”
Saban said that Alabama’s offensive struggles for much of the mid-game stretch when Clemson was coming from behind was due more to the loss of running back Bo Scarborough, who went out with a leg injury in the third quarter, than the change of offensive coordinators. Saban had replaced Lane Kiffin with Steve Sarkisian last Monday.
“I thought the preparation was good, the organization was good,” Saban said. “Was it challenging? Yes. Did everyone involved handle it extremely well? Absolutely.”
Despite a limited downfield passing attack, Alabama jumped out to a 14-0 lead. An ill-advised fourth-and-one attempt by Clemson gave UA solid field position at its 41 on the Crimson Tide’s second possession of the game and it took just three plays for a touchdown on a 25-yard Scarbrough run.
Scarbrough scored again on a 37-yard run with 10:42 remaining to push the UA lead to two touchdowns. But the Crimson Tide became mired on offense and Clemson put together its sole solid drive of the first half, set up on a 41-yard screen pass from Watson to Deon Cain and capped by an 8-yard Watson run for the score that cut the halftime margin to 14-7.
Alabama extended the lead to 17-7 on an Adam Griffith field goal. After a Clemson touchdown, Alabama answered with a Hurts throw to a wide-open O.J. Howard. That allowed the Crimson Tide to take a 24-14 lead into the fourth quarter, but for the first time under Saban, Alabama was unable to hold on to the double-digit lead.
Watson, who finished with 420 yards and three touchdowns passing and a rushing touchdown as well, said that his thoughts in the waning minutes were of former Texas quarterback Vince Young, who led the Longhorns to a similar comeback in 2006.
“I wanted to be a legend,” he said.
Both teams finished the year at 14-1, although Alabama’s winning streak was snapped at 26.
“Every loss is painful,” Saban said. “But my loss is really the bad feeling I have for the players.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.