GLENDALE, Ariz. — For three quarters, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson got the better of his duel with Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, accounting for 308 of the Tigers’ 336 yards to that point. But Watson’s spectacular one-man show wasn’t enough Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
A recovery of a daring fourth-quarter onsides kick by Alabama set up a momentum-shifting 51-yard touchdown pass from Jake Coker to tight end O.J. Howard for a 31-24 Crimson Tide lead. A 95-yard kickoff return by Kenyan Drake salted away a 45-40 victory over No. 1 Clemson (14-1) and the fifth national championship for coach Nick Saban, including four in the past seven seasons at the dynasty he has built in Tuscaloosa.
Before the game, Watson said finishing third to Henry in the Heisman race was not a motivating factor, but as the game evolved, it seemed to turn into a duel between the two stars. Henry surpassed the all-time Alabama rushing record during a game in which he carried 36 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns.
But Watson was even better, completing 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns with an interception and rushing for another 73 yards on 20 carries. Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, who rushed for 150 yards in the Orange Bowl, was held to 45 on 14 carries. Alabama’s Coker rose to the occasion, completing 16 of 25 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns.
Coker’s biggest completion might have been a third-and-11 strike of 38 yards to ArDarius Stewart that set up a 33-yard field goal by Adam Griffith that tied it at 24 with 10:34 left. Before the Tigers could collect themselves, Griffith blooped a short kickoff to the right side that Bama’s Marlon Humphrey caught on the fly at midfield. It was a shocker that led to Coker’s go-ahead, 51-yard pass to a wide-open Howard, who ran right past safety T.J. Green for a 31-24 lead. Howard had five catches for 208 yards.
Watson drove the Tigers 61 yards for a 31-yard field goal by Greg Huegel that cut the deficit to 31-27, but Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards down the left sideline to drive a stake through the Tigers’ hearts and end their undefeated streak at 17. Watson completed a 15-yard TD pass to Artavis Scott, but his two-point conversion run failed,
Coming off its 38-0 Cotton Bowl annihilation of Michigan State, No. 2 Alabama (14-1) was installed as a seven-point favorite over undefeated Clemson.
When Henry broke a 50-yard touchdown run virtually untouched through a gaping hole on the Crimson Tide’s second possession, it was clear the Tigers needed to muster a strong response or risk playing a hopeless game of catch-up.
A 43-yard kickoff return by Scott and a pass-interference penalty quickly put Clemson at the Alabama 31. Watson then dropped a dime right into the hands of single-covered Hunter Renfrow in the back of the end zone to tie it at 7, and it was game on.
Coker completed a 25-yard pass to Howard to move the ball to Clemson’s 29. But the drive stalled, and Griffith was wide right with his 44-yard field-goal attempt. With the ball back in his court, Watson moved the Tigers smartly downfield on a 73-yard drive that ended with his 11-yard pass to Renfrow cutting across the back of the end zone for a 14-7 lead. Watson accounted for 67 yards on the drive, including 55 through the air.
Following another Bama punt, Clemson had a chance to build on its momentum, but on second down, an underthrown pass by Watson was intercepted at the Tigers’ 42 by Alabama safety Eddie Jackson. A 12-yard run by Henry plus a facemask penalty put the ball at Clemson’s 12 before Henry tied it on a 1-yard smash up the middle.
The Tigers lost shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander because of an apparent left hamstring injury, but defensive end Shaq Lawson managed to keep going with a sprained knee. He and end Kevin Dodd combined to sack Coker three times in the first half. Clemson had a shot at a goal just before the end of the half, but Huegel’s 44-yard attempt was blocked.
Alexander’s absence from the Tigers’ secondary became a factor early in the second half. Alabama flanked two receivers right, and safety T.J. Green didn’t notice and left the cornerback alone. Howard streaked down the right side by himself and gathered in a 58-yard scoring bomb from Coker for a 21-14 lead. That hardly was the way to beat a dynastic program.
Watson managed to bring the Tigers right back with the help of pass interference that put the ball at the Alabama 21. But a perfect third-down throw to Scott in the corner of the end zone was broken up by safety Ronnie Harrison, who pried the ball loose. Clemson settled for a 37-yard field goal by Huegel to cut the Tide’s lead to 21-17.
Dodd recorded his third sack to stop Alabama’s next drive, and a 13-yard punt return by Scott gave Clemson good field position at its own 40. Watson broke scrambling runs of 20 and 16 yards to help move the Tigers to a third-and-goal at the Bama 1-yard line, and Gallman pounded in for the go-ahead touchdown and a 24-17 lead the Tigers took into the fourth quarter.