This one was so good, even the referees didn’t want it to end.
So the national championship game required two endings to wrap up Clemson’s improbable, incredible and now indisputable 35-31 upset of top-ranked Alabama on Monday night.
Of course, that’s how difficult it is to topple the most powerful dynasty in college football history and deny the Crimson Tide not only a repeat title, but a fifth in the last eight years.
As if the ending of two Clemson touchdowns in the final five minutes of the game, including the game-winner with a single second left to play, weren’t enough to assure the Tigers of their first national title since 1981, a tedious review of Clemson’s recovery of a clock-killing onside kick temporarily put the stunning upset on hold.
But so what? Even if the review — one of far too many by the Big 12 officiating crew — delayed the official ending, the Tigers certainly didn’t mind rushing the field twice amid the cascading confetti from the sky. The ACC champions had waited long enough.
They had their first national crown in 35 years, and Alabama’s stunning run was over in a classic game for the ages. Suddenly, abruptly and clearly over.
“That had to be one of the greatest games of all time,” said head coach Dabo Swinney, whose Clemson team has gone 28-2 over the last two years and beat a No. 1 team for the first time in school history. “This was this team’s mission. The theme of the playoffs was chasing greatness.”
His Tigers caught it although Alabama brought it out of them, especially magical quarterback Deshaun Watson, who won to extend his personal record to 32-3. But that’s how a Clemson team won a record eight games away from home and gave the school its fifth championship in all sports.
“It’s been 35 years,” Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware, the defensive player of the game, bellowed in the celebration. “It’s finally coming home.”
This finish may have been the equal of Texas’ last-minute victory over defending national champion USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl. And while this entire game played out before 74,512 transfixed spectators at Raymond James Stadium might not have duplicated the thrills or consistency of that title game, the fourth period Monday overflowed with remarkable play and resilient spirit.
Clemson’s performance overshadowed a brilliant comeback by Alabama, which trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time all season when Wayne Gallman’s 1-yard leaping score put the Tigers ahead 28-24 with 4:38 left to play. Like anyone thought Alabama would go out meekly. Not a chance.
The Tide showed its mettle on the next possession, first overcoming a third-and-16 and fourth-and-1 in its own territory. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, promoted from analyst to play-caller just seven days ago after the ejection of the bombastic Lane Kiffin, dialed up a masterful trick play with true freshman Jalen Hurts throwing a backward pass to wide receiver Ardarius Stewart, who threw a dart to tight end O.J. Howard for a 24-yard gain.
One play later, that set up what the Tide faithful hoped would be the final blow to Clemson. Hurts, who struggled mightily and was outdueled by his junior counterpart, had completed just 13 of 31 passes for 131 yards, 68 of which came on a scoring pass to Howard as three Clemson defenders bit hard on a short screen option to Calvin Ridley to set the tight end free downfield.
But Hurts made some magic with his feet, taking off on a scramble up and the middle and rushing virtually untouched for a 30-yard scoring run. And suddenly, Alabama was back on top 31-28 with 2:07 remaining.
But that was too much time left for Watson. He connected on five of six passes — excluding the incompletion when he spiked the ball to stop the clock — and relied on some trickiness himself with a hook-and-ladder play with Artavis Scott and Gallman. Then with six seconds left, Renfrow rubbed off what may have been an illegal pick play and cradled the ball from Watson in the corner of the end zone with a scant second left in the game.
“That was no upset,” Swinney said. “This was an expectation.”
It took exactly what Clemson produced in the monumental final quarter. Watson, a Heisman finalist the last two years and a runner-up this season, led his Tigers on three stirring touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and found Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone to spoil Alabama’s own heroics and make Watson a mythical figure in South Carolina.
In the fourth quarter alone, he hit 12 of 18 passes for 130 yards and two scores, targeting future first-round draft pick Mike Williams as well as Deon Cain, Jordan Leggett and Renfrow.
“He’s the best player in the country,” Swinney said of Watson. “If anyone doubts that, that’s just ridiculous. He didn’t lose the Heisman. The Heisman lost out on him.”
This was a rematch, but there was no repeat winner.
The Tigers just had too many weapons for the Tide and rode them during their fourth-quarter comeback while Alabama lost one to injury. It was a big one because its rambunctious tailback, sophomore Bo Scarbrough, went out with an injury and was sidelined for the last quarter after pounding Clemson for 93 yards and two touchdowns.
“Bo has really come on and played extremely well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He’s been a bellcow for us. Not to have him was a little bit of a disadvantage for us.”
The difference largely centered around the difference in experience for the two competing quarterbacks. Watson had been spectacular a year ago in accounting for 478 yards, but fell short in a 45-40 loss to the same Crimson Tide in the ultimate game. And he mirrored that performance with 458 yards Monday that included three touchdown passes and another one on the ground.
“It was calm in the huddle,” said Watson, who mentioned Texas’ Vince Young from those Rose Bowl heroics. “No one on the offense panicked. I told the offensive line, ‘Let’s be legendary. Let’s be great.’”
But Clemson won it with defense as much as Watson and friends. The terrific front four keyed a unit that produced eight three-and-outs and held Alabama to just 66 plays and only 16 first downs.
“I think we scored 31 points, which was pretty good against a defense that shut out Ohio State last week,” Saban said. “I think every loss is very painful. Clemson made some really good plays down the stretch. They made some great catches.”
They caught some history Monday night. But no one was in any mood to bury the Crimson Tide.
“They’ll probably be right back next year,” Swinney said. “But hopefully we’ll have a rubber match.”