In a near replay of the 2015 national title game, college football powers Alabama and Clemson traded haymakers Monday night, with some of the same big names delivering.
“That has to be one of the greatest games of all time,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, according to The Associated Press.
“Eight years ago we set out to put Clemson back on top. We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying.”
A year ago, Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard and Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson — again a Heisman runner-up — delivered many of the biggest plays as Alabama won 45-40.
This year, sophomore running back Bo Scarborough and 18-year-old freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts stepped in for Alabama’s drafted Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry, scoring three long rushing touchdowns. But they couldn’t break Clemson’s heart again.
Watson led a commanding drive with two minutes remaining, and found wide receiver Hunter Renfrow in the flat for a touchdown with one second left to win the game 35-31. It’s Clemson football’s first national title since 1981.
“It’s been 35 long years!” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware screamed, according to the AP. “It’s coming home baby! It’s coming home!”
Clemson quarterback Watson played as well as he did in 2015, throwing for 420 yards and three touchdowns, while running for 43 yards and another score. Renfrow’s touchdown catch was his second of the game, and his fourth across the two title games. As in 2015, running back Wayne Gallman punched in a touchdown from one yard out, giving the Tigers their first lead with just 4:38 left in the game.
Boulware led a Clemson defense that got tougher as the game went on, getting two tackles for loss and directing his teammates for another critical third-down stop behind the line of scrimmage.
Clemson trailed Alabama by as much as 14 points as Scarborough scored on two 25- and 37-yard runs, who showed his 18- and 68-yard touchdowns against Washington in the semifinal weren’t flukes after a banged-up season.
Crimson Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson got a sack and recovered two fumbles, including one he stripped out of Gallman’s arms, while punter J.K. Scott pinned Clemson inside their own 20 yard line three times in the first half and five times throughout the game.
“We’re getting our butts kicked in field position right now,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney — an Alabama alum — said at halftime.
But the Tigers piled up 21 points on a Crimson Tide defense that had only given up 32 all season, denying coach Nick Saban his sixth title. Alabama came into the game with 26 straight wins and four titles in the past eight years.
The AP reports that Saban acknowledged it was not the team’s best night.
“Look, there’s not one play in the game that makes a difference in a game,” Saban said. “We could have done a lot of things a lot better. But I have to say that I was proud of the way our guys competed in the game, and just sorry for all of them that we didn’t finish it better.”