Deshaun Watson fell short of upsetting Alabama a year ago. The Crimson Tide put him through a ringer again Monday, including a hit so hard he did a 720-degree spin.
This time, however, Watson would not be denied.
The Clemson quarterback threw for 420 yards, added 43 on the ground and was responsible for four touchdowns on his way to winning offensive MVP honors in the Tigers' 35-31 win over Alabama.
Ben Boulware was named defensive MVP. The Tigers' emotional leader helped Clemson's defense hold Jalen Hurts to a 13-of-31 passing performance and a 2-of-15 performance on third downs.
“I’m so happy for our family, it’s not just for just us,” an emotional Boulware said on ESPN after the game. “It’s for the Tajh Boyds, the Stephone Anthonys, the Grady Jarretts, the [DeAndre Hopkinses] and Sammy Watkins. Ya’ll built this. Ya’ll started this foundation."
Boulware and Watson added their name to the list of Clemson legends Monday. But while Boulware deserves credit for his defensive leadership, the storybook ending belonged to Watson, whose two-yard pass to Hunter Renfrow provided a classic capper to his collegiate career.
Hunter Renfrow welcome to history. https://t.co/opLhldYSza— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 10, 2017
Receiving the ball with just over two minutes remaining following an Alabama touchdown, Watson spearheaded a nine-play, 68-yard drive to give Clemson its first national title since 1981. He completed six of his eight passes on the drive, with Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett both hauling in big plays before Renfrow brought in the short yarder.
The performance led to an outbreak of support on social media:
Great game tonight. @DeshaunWatson4 played great. But please don't compare him to VY. Watson a better QB w/ great accuracy. VY an athlete— ANTONIO CROMARTIE (@CRO31) January 10, 2017
"Maybe now everyone will understand when I say Deshaun Watson is the best player in the country." - Dabo Swinney pic.twitter.com/kPvqE4dw74— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 10, 2017
Got to keep athletes like Watson in the state of Georgia😩😩— Todd Gurley II (@TG3II) January 10, 2017
Renfrow finished with a team-high 10 receptions for 92 yards and two scores. Williams, Leggett, Renfrow and Deon Cain each had at least 92 yards receiving and five receptions. Watson completed 36 of his 56 pass attempts and needed 21 carries to get to 43 yards in what will go down as one of the best single-player performances in recent memory.
While his counting stats look brilliant in the end, the first half saw a seeming one-man battle against a group of NFL-bound Space Jam Monstars bent on destruction.
Alabama held Clemson scoreless for nearly the first 24 minutes before Watson got the Tigers on the board with an eight-yard run. The Tigers were held scoreless the rest of the way in the first half and went into the break looking rattled. Watson wasn't hitting passes, the run game was going nowhere and Alabama's athletes were winning every battle.
"It was calm. No one over there panicked," Watson said on ESPN after the game. "I said let’s be legendary, let’s be great."
Watson had far more to say in the second half.
Renfrow took a Watson pass 24 yards to the house midway through the third quarter, closing a 17-7 gap, and seemingly sparking a dormant Tigers attack. Clemson scored on three of its final five drives and dictated the pace, with the Crimson Tide offense struggling after an injury to running back Bo Scarbrough.
Watson hit Williams from four yards out in the fourth quarter to close another 10-point gap, and Wayne Gallman gave the Tigers their first lead of the game with 4:38 remaining. Alabama resorted to a well-timed trick play and got a 30-yard touchdown run from Hurts to retake the lead, which only served to set up Watson's game-winning heroics.
The award comes a year after Watson accounted for 478 total yards and four touchdowns in a 45-40 loss to the Tide. In their two national championship game matchups, Watson has thrown for 825 yards against Saban's intricate defense.
"I think it's my time to go. Kind of end it with a bang," said Watson after the game, per Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press. There may be no better indicator of his readiness for the draft than that stat.
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.