Defense doesn't win championships. Special teams and big plays win championships.
The Alabama Crimson Tide shocked the Clemson Tigers with four touchdowns of 50 yards or more on the way to a 45-40 victory in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday night. It was Alabama's fourth national title since the 2009 season, and it cemented its recent run as one of the best ever, as ESPN Stats & Info highlighted:
It was also head coach Nick Saban's fifth career title, and Dan Wolken of USA Today considered Monday's performance one of the coach's best:
The championship was also a testament to Saban's recruiting ability, as John Garcia Jr. of Scout.com noted:
Saban made his impact with a critical decision to attempt an onside kick in the fourth quarter after Alabama had tied the game. It worked—and set up a go-ahead touchdown, which underscored one of the themes from Monday's contest.
Clemson's special teams consistently collapsed: missing a field-goal attempt at the end of the first half and allowing the onside kick and a backbreaking kickoff return for a touchdown by Kenyan Drake in the final quarter. Drake averaged 39.2 yards per return on five attempts.
The Tigers also failed to stop tight end O.J. Howard—who finished with 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns after scoring twice in the last three seasons combined—and running back Derrick Henry—who proved his Heisman Trophy worth with 158 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson capped a brilliant season with 405 passing yards, 73 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He put up 40 points against the nation's No. 1 scoring defense and was unstoppable throughout the four quarters. He warned the college football world something like that would happen back in 2012:
With players such as Watson and Henry, the offenses wasted little time making game-changing plays in the first quarter on the way to 21 combined points. Although Clemson took a 14-7 lead into the second, Alabama struck first when Henry steamrolled his way through a hole for a 50-yard touchdown.
Robby Kalland of CBSSports.com depicted the scene:
Ryan Krasnoo of Sports Illustrated said, "It should be illegal for someone 6'3" and 235 pounds to run that fast." Bryan Fischer of Bleacher Report recognized the offensive line's efforts on the play:
The Tigers responded with two quick scores. Watson found Hunter Renfrow, who chose Clemson as a preferred walk-on, for two touchdowns in the opening quarter. One went for 31 yards, and the other went for 11.
The Alabama defense was having trouble keeping up with the Tigers' early pace. College GameDay shared a look at the first connection:
Fischer weighed in on the development:
B/R Insights pointed out how rare the early defensive struggles were for the Crimson Tide:
Alabama turned the tide in the second quarter when Eddie Jackson picked off Watson, which set up another touchdown by Henry and knotted the game at 14. College GameDay illustrated how difficult it was for the Clemson defense to stop the Heisman winner from scoring from the 1-yard line:
Henry also made some program history in the first half, per ESPN Stats & Info:
The defenses settled down for the remainder of the half, and the teams entered the locker rooms tied at 14. Greg Huegel missed a 44-yard field goal that would have put the Tigers ahead before halftime. It came after time mismanagement by the officials, who failed to stop the clock after a first down and forced Clemson to take its last timeout and try a longer field goal than perhaps it would have otherwise.
Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch offered his support for Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney:
Clemson had reason to be concerned outside of the officials, because cornerback Mackensie Alexander—who was questionable coming into the game with a hamstring injury—left the contest after reaggravating the ailment. Alexander had "been moving at half speed most of the night," according to Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com. "You just knew that hammy would bite at some point."
Right on cue, the Crimson Tide exploited the limited Tigers secondary to start the second half. Quarterback Jake Coker hit Howard for a 53-yard score after a blown coverage assignment left the tight end wide open down the sideline. SportsCenter captured how open Howard was even after the catch:
Larry Williams of TigerIllustrated.com acknowledged those kinds of plays have been an issue for Clemson:
The Tigers responded with a field goal to cut the deficit to 21-17 and got a stop when Kevin Dodd recorded an impressive sack on the ensuing possession. Nancy Armour of USA Today put the pressure by the Clemson front seven into perspective:
Watson looked like a magician with the football, as he kept alive a nine-play, 60-yard drive with a number of critical scrambles and perfectly placed throws. While Watson did most of the work, running back Wayne Gallman capped the series with a one-yard touchdown run.
The Tigers had a 24-21 lead, and Watson was drawing a number of comparisons, per Fornelli:
Henry, on the other hand, made more program history during the third, as Alabama Football pointed out:
Early in the fourth quarter, Coker came through with an incredible 38-yard completion to ArDarius Stewart as he was falling backward. That set up the game-tying field goal with 10:34 left. Alabama then stunned Clemson with its surprise onside kick, and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated discussed the gutsy call:
Coker helped the Tide take a 31-24 lead with a 51-yard pass to Howard, who was wide open for the second time. Wolken reacted to the poor defense:
Clemson kicked a field goal to make it 31-27, but Drake opened a two-score margin with a 95-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. It was another special teams disaster for the Tigers at the most inopportune time, and Fischer said it had been foreshadowed:
Clemson wasn't dead yet, as Watson directed an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. He connected with Artavis Scott from 15 yards out for a touchdown, but the Tigers could not convert the two-point attempt and found themselves trailing 38-33 with 4:40 left. B/R Insights noted Watson made history during the drive:
Just when it looked like the Tigers were going to get a stop, Howard busted loose on a tight end screen to put Alabama in field-goal range, and Coker scrambled for a first down with 2:10 left. Michael Wilbon of ESPN remarked on the speed of Howard from the tight end position:
Henry then put the game away from less than a yard out, though the officials delayed their touchdown call to the point that many in the crowd thought Clemson had registered a third-down stop. Mike Farrell of Rivals.com agreed with the ruling but wondered about the execution of the call:
Even with Alabama ahead 45-33 and only 1:07 left on the clock, Watson continued his fight, finding Jordan Leggett for a 24-yard score to trim the deficit to 45-40. It was too little, too late, however, and Alabama clinched the national title with a kneel-down after Clemson failed to recover its onside kick.
Unfortunately for college football fans, the offseason is next for every team. Fortunately for fans of both Clemson and Alabama, their squads are well positioned to challenge for a spot in next season's College Football Playoff.
Steven Lassan of Athlon Sports ranked the Crimson Tide No. 1 and the Tigers No. 2 in his early Top 25 for 2016, largely because of the talent both teams will still have in place. Alabama will likely lose Henry, but running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will take the reins in the backfield, and wide receiver Calvin Ridley will still be a dangerous threat in the passing game.
Plus, the Crimson Tide ranked in the top six nationally in scoring defense in each of the last seven seasons and will likely reload on that side of the ball once again.
For the Tigers, Watson's return is the primary reason they will be among the nation's best. He proved himself as a Heisman finalist throughout the season and will be on the shortlist of favorites to capture the award next year, especially after Monday's outing. Wide receiver Mike Williams will also return to give Watson another weapon he didn't have in 2015.
A championship rematch is a legitimate possibility next season. Few would likely complain after Monday's incredible, back-and-forth affair.
Howard was named Offensive Player of the Game in the aftermath, while Jackson, who tallied the interception, was named the Defensive Player of the Game.
Still, Saban recognized his entire team after the win, per SEC Sports: “It was a tough game. I am so proud of our players.”
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin discussed his coach and “said he was ‘stunned’ when Saban called the onside kick. Said he had to be careful not to make a face that would give it away,” per Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com.
Saban described his rationale for the move, per Mandel: “I called the onside kick because it was 21-21, we were tired on defense, needed to do something to change momentum or wasn't going to win.”
Kiffin also jokingly said, per Mandel, that Alabama had “been resting him for 14 games. He had fresh legs,” when discussing Howard’s breakthrough performance after a quiet career. Saban took responsibility, though, and said “bad coaching” by him is why Howard wasn’t used enough this year, per Josh Bean of AL.com.
On the other side, Swinney was already looking ahead, per Dr. Saturday of Yahoo Sports: “You can't let one game define you. This program doesn't take a backseat to anybody. We can beat anybody, and that's a fact.”
Swinney also said, per College GameDay, “It won't be another 34 years before we'll be back, I promise you that.”
With Watson returning next season, it’s hard to argue with that.