For most of Monday night’s matchup between Alabama and Clemson, it seemed like history was repeating itself, only with a slightly different cast of characters.
Instead of Derrick Henry shaking off arm tackles and bulldozing his way to the end zone, it was running back Bo Scarbrough. Instead of Jake Coker making clutch throws just when Alabama needed them, it was quarterback Jalen Hurts. And tight end O.J. Howard — a name one suspects Clemson fans would rather not hear again —reprised his previous role in last year’s game as the team’s big-play receiver.
But ultimately, history didn’t repeat itself; rather, it was made. Dabo Swinney’s Tigers broke the Crimson Tide’s 26-game win streak and denied Nick Saban and his program the opportunity to win a fifth national championship in eight seasons.
The Tigers won their first championship since 1981, and, in the process, beat a No. 1 ranked team for the first time in program history. In true heart-pounding fashion that has recently characterized Clemson football, the team sealed the win with one second left on the game clock.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Hunter Renfrow — who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from quarterback Deshaun Watson — was a two-star recruit who had offers to play football at Furman University, Wofford College, Appalachian State, Presbyterian College and Gardner-Webb. Instead, he chose to walk on at Clemson.
Now his name will be associated with Clemson’s long-awaited triumph, 35 years in the making.
But the Tigers’ high-powered offense didn’t come alive right away on Monday night. In fact, it stagnated throughout nearly the entire first half. The Crimson Tide defense arrived in Tampa, Fla., as advertised: hard-hitting, swarming, aggressive and disciplined. To make mattes even more difficult for Watson and company, Crimson Tide punter JK Scott was consistently pinning the Tigers deep in their own territory to start drives.
The Tigers fell into a 14-0 hole, and their first big play of the game came with about seven minutes left in the first half on a screen pass to Deon Cain that went for 43 yards. That ultimately set up an 8-yard touchdown run from Watson, and the Tigers went into the half down 14-7.
“I told them tonight, I told them the difference in the game was going to be love. My word all year has been love, and I said, ‘Tonight, we’re going to win because we love each other.” … I told them at the half, ‘Guys, we’re going to win the game. I don’t know how, but we’re going to win it.’” –Dabo Swinney
At the beginning of the second half, it quickly looked like the Tigers were about to dig an even deeper hole. Wayne Gallman fumbled, and Alabama’s Ryan Anderson recovered the ball on Clemson’s 12-yard line. But the Tigers’ defense came through and held the Tide to a field goal to make the score 17-7.
Clemson took advantage of great field position two drives later. After starting on the Alabama 42-yard line, Watson found receiver Deon Cain for 14 yards. Following a rushing attempt and an incompletion, Watson delivered a strike to Renfrow, who darted his way into the end zone, putting Clemson within three points, their smallest deficit of the game.
After trading punts, the score remained 17-14. And that’s when O.J. Howard re-entered the nightmares of the Clemson faithful. The Tigers defense simply neglected to cover Howard, and Hurts, who hadn’t yet done much damage through the air, lofted a pass to the wide-open tight end, who took it to the end zone for a 68-yard score.
Alabama was up by 10 again, and to make matters worse for the Tigers, defensive end Clelin Ferrell sustained an ankle injury that kept him out for the remainder of the game. Scarbrough, who had two touchdown runs for the Crimson Tide, exited the game with a leg injury.
The Tigers, however, produced a response drive of their own. Watson led the Tigers down the field on a 72-yard scoring drive that was capped by a 4-yard touchdown pass to Williams on the first play of the fourth quarter.
On that drive, Watson was 5/7 for 53 yards. With 14 minutes remaining in the game, the score was 24-21, Alabama.
14 minutes left last year: Clemson 24, Alabama 21.
14 minutes left this year: Alabama 24, Clemson 21.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 10, 2017
The next five drives between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide resulted in five punts, and no drive went more than 20 yards. Suddenly, the contest turned into a defensive battle, with both units refusing to give.
But the Tigers would strike again, putting together an 88-yard touchdown drive. It was their first lead in the game. The drive was partially aided by an unsportsmanlike penalty on defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, which brought the Tigers to the Crimson Tide’s 16-yard-line following a fantastic acrobatic 26-yard catch by wide receiver Mike Williams. Watson nearly ran the ball in for the score on the next play, but Wayne Gallman ultimately punched it in from inside the 1-yard line. Four minutes and 38 seconds remained. Clemson led 28-24.
The next drive, however, soon reminded everyone why Alabama had won 26 games in a row. It took six plays for the Crimson Tide to go 68 yards down the field and retake the lead. The drive featured a trick play call in which wide receiver ArDarius Stewart completed a 24-yard pass to – who else — O.J. Howard, and then Hurts proceeded to bob and weave his way through Clemson defenders for a 30-yard score. The Tigers’ lead didn’t even last for two and a half minutes.
The score was 31-28, Alabama, and Clemson now had to drive down the field against the FBS’ best defense and either kick a field goal to force overtime or score a go-ahead touchdown.
After a 20-yard kickoff return by C.J. Fuller, the Tigers started with good field position at their own 32-yard line with 2:07 left. As time was ticking, Watson led the Tigers down the field. Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett made two clutch catches on the drive, and suddenly Clemson was at the Alabama 9-yard line. On second and goal, defensive back Anthony Averett was called for pass interference against Mike Williams. The penalty gave the Tigers an automatic first down, but there were only six seconds remaining.
And that’s when it happened. Watson took the snap, immediately rolled to his right and fired a strike into the hands of Renfrow.
The rest is history.
The Play pic.twitter.com/qLrw7Uywk3
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) January 10, 2017