Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson found wide receiver Hunter Renfrow in the end zone with one second left, for a 2-yard touchdown and the national championship, beating undefeated Alabama 35-31 at Raymond James Stadium on Monday night.
The victory gave the Tigers their first football championship since 1981. It also avenged a 45-40 loss to the Crimson Tide in last season’s championship game in Glendale, Ariz.
Watson, expected to be a high NFL pick, completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns. Renfrow, who orignally came to Clemson as a walk-on, caught 10 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
The final play was set up by an pass interference call in the end zone, when an Alabama defensive back ran over Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams.
The Tigers took their first lead of the game with 4 minutes, 38 seconds remaining, when running back Wayne Gallman hurdled into the end zone from 1 yard out. It was only fair Gallman scored, since he threw a tremendous downfield block on the previous play to help Watson run 15 yards to the one.
The Tigers drove 88 yards for that touchdown. The key play was Watson’s 26-yard completion to Williams to get into Alabama territory. The referees tacked on an additional 15 yards, charging Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne with unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Crimson Tide responded with a six-play, 68-yard touchdown drive. Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts ran 30 yards for the score with just over two minutes left. The scoring play was set up by a lateral to wide receiver ArDarius Stewart. Stewart then passed to to O.J. Howard for a 24-yard gain.
The Tigers fell behind 14-0 early in the second quarter on a 37-yard touchdown run by Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough that completed a 74-yard, five-play drive that took just 1 1/2 minutes to complete.
As well as the Crimson Tide defense was playing, a 14-point lead might have been sufficient. But Clemson’s offense fought back, going 87 yards midway through the second quarter for its first touchdown. Watson was completing passes early, but not gaining many yards in the air. Tht changed when Watson found tight end Jordan Leggett for a 26-yard completion to the Alabama 13.
Two plays later, Watson ran a keeper 8 yards into the end zone. That completed the scoring in the first half.
Clemson received the opening kickoff of the second half, and got burned quickly. Gallman, usually reliable when it comes to ball security, fumbled after a 4-yard loss. Crimson Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the Clemson 16.
Four plays later, Adam Griffith hit a 27-yard field goal to extend Alabama’s lead to 10.
Three who mattered
Bo Scarbrough: Alabama’s sophomore running back can drag tacklers a long ways toward that end zone. And he’s not just power, with quickness and speed.
Renfrow: A former walk-on from Myrtle Beach, Renfrow has become an impactful slot receiver who’s scored three touchdowns against the Crimson Tide over two title games.
Watson: He had a slow start in his last college game, but Clemson’s quarterback picked it up with down-field completions in the second and third quarters.
▪ The playing surface at Raymond James Stadium got some heavy usage two weekends ago when the Buccaneers hosted the Carolina Panthers, followed quickly by the Outback Bowl between Florida and Iowa. To make sure of quality footing, the field underwent a major re-sodding to the extent it looked pristine before warmups Monnday afternoon.
▪ Tampa went through its coldest weather of this winter Sunday, with wind chill down in the 30s. There was a warmup Monday that pushed the high up to 68. Considering this is an open-air stadium, the return to mild temperatures was appreciated in the stands.
▪ With the Crimson Tide secondary so focused on containing Clemson star wide receiver Williams, the field opened up some for tight end Leggett and slot receiver Renfrow.
▪ Alabama freshman quarterback Hurts is a skilled runner, but his mechanics as a passer need a ton of coaching. Most of his first-half completions were dump-offs.
▪ Monday was a big day for prominent college coaches who made marks in South Carolina. Former Clemson coach Danny Ford and former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier were both selected for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Ford got his undergraduate degree from Alabama and coached Clemson to the 1981 national championship. During Spurrier’s tenure, the Gamecocks enjoyed three of the four total seasons in program history winning 10 or more games.
▪ Clemson safety Tanner Muse, who grew up in Belmont and played for South Point High, had a partial block of an Alabama punt.
▪ Spurrier was lustily booed when he was introduced pregame (seemingly because he beat Clemson and Alabama a lot at various coaching stops).
▪ Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster was charged with unnecessary roughness in the first quarter on a play that could have been targeting. Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell later was called for roughing the passer when he hit Hurts in the head.