The Clemson Tigers avenged last year's defeat in the national title game by toppling the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-31 on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson couldn't have written a better ending to his college career, throwing a touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining. ESPN shared a replay of the game-winning score:
Watson finished with 420 yards and three touchdowns on 36-of-56 passing. CBSSports.com's Chris Towers noted that the junior is one of few players to have had the Crimson Tide's number in recent years:
Watson's opposite number, Jalen Hurts, struggled, going 13-of-31 for 131 yards and a touchdown.
Bo Scarbrough started well but left the game injured and finished with 93 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. His absence played a pivotal role in Clemson's outscoring Alabama 21-7 in the fourth quarter.
One of the questions heading into Monday night's game was the impact Lane Kiffin's departure would have on the Crimson Tide offense. Steve Sarkisian had served as an offensive analyst with the team this year, but the new offensive coordinator didn't have a lot of time to formulate a game plan.
Kiffin drew criticism for giving Scarbrough just 19 carries in the Peach Bowl, with critics arguing the sophomore running back should've played a bigger role.
Scarbrough didn't take long to leave his mark on the national championship game, putting Alabama on the board with a 25-yard touchdown run with 9:23 left in the first quarter. College GameDay shared a look at the run from the back of the end zone:
Scarbrough doubled Alabama's lead with a 37-yard scamper with 10:42 remaining in the first half. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach and CBS Sports provided visual evidence of Scarbrough running over the Clemson defense:
Kiffin was happy to see the Crimson Tide go ahead 14-0:
Watson cut the deficit in half with an eight-yard touchdown run that capped a seven-play, 87-yard drive, and Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney was glad to head into halftime down by only seven points, per the team's Twitter account:
Clemson shot itself in the foot to begin the second half, though, as Wayne Gallman fumbled on his own 34-yard line. Ryan Anderson recovered for Alabama and advanced the ball to the Tigers' 16-yard line.
The Tigers defense did well to hold the Tide to a 27-yard field goal by Adam Griffith with 12:25 to go in the third quarter. While Alabama didn't find the end zone, Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath cheered on his alma mater:
Three possessions later, Renfrow helped make it a three-point game with a 24-yard touchdown reception that gave Clemson new life.
The score coincided with a fallow period for the Alabama offense. After Scarbrough's second touchdown, the Crimson Tide gained 42 combined yards on their next seven drives.
Making matters worse, Scarbrough exited the game with what appeared to be a leg injury, according to Bryan Fischer of College Football Talk.
O.J. Howard was largely anonymous in his senior season after catching five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns in last year's national championship game, but the athletic tight end haunted the Clemson secondary again Monday night, exploiting a blown coverage to tally a 68-yard touchdown reception.
SEC Network provided a second look at the play:
USC Trojans cornerback Adoree' Jackson is well aware of Howard's talent and tendencies, having faced him in the teams' season opener:
Mike Williams answered with a four-yard touchdown reception to again help bring the Tigers back within three with 14 minutes left in the game. Saturday Down South thought the junior wideout benefited from a pick by teammate Jordan Leggett:
With Scarbrough unavailable, the Tide offense again ground to a halt. The passing game was nonexistent, and the coaching staff did little to get backup running back Damien Harris involved.
MLB starting pitcher Brett Anderson thought Kiffin would find a way to be the hero:
That left the door open for Clemson, which took the lead with 4:38 remaining, as Gallman scored from a yard out to help put the Tigers ahead 28-24. NFL Network's Rich Eisen thought Clemson did a great job of tiring out the Alabama defense:
But much as he did in the Tide's 10-0 win over the LSU Tigers in November, Hurts made up for an otherwise forgettable performance with a big touchdown run. After failing to find an open receiver, he tucked the ball and scrambled 30 yards into the end zone with 2:07 to play.
According to ESPN, Hurts made history with the scamper:
But the Alabama defense couldn't stop Clemson from marching 68 yards.
It was a great sendoff for Watson, Williams and Gallman, all of whom will enter the NFL draft. Artavis Scott will leave after his junior year as well. Replacing that quartet will be difficult for Swinney, but the defense—including standout underclassmen Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins on the line—will again be stingy.
The Tigers have won at least 10 games for six straight years, too, so they'll likely contend for the ACC crown.
For Alabama, the questions will only continue for head coach Nick Saban about whether parting ways with Kiffin was the right decision. The Crimson Tide's inability to move the chains proved costly in the second half, putting pressure on the defense.
Alabama fans haven't exactly been starved for success, but that won't take the sting away from losing the national championship game with one second remaining.
Saban didn't blame the offensive coordinator change for the defeat, according to USA Today's Nicole Auerbach:
I think the players handled it very well. We scored 31 points in the game, which I think was pretty good against a pretty good defense that actually shut out Ohio State last week. I think we had some drops. I think we had some tipped balls. I think there was things that we could have done better. But I thought the preparation was good. I thought the organization was good, and I thought we gave our players a chance in this game to have success.
Was it challenging? Yes. Did everyone involved handle it extremely well? Absolutely.
For Swinney, Monday's win was the culmination of nearly a decade of work.
"Eight years ago we set out to put Clemson back on top," he said, per Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press (via the Boston Globe). "We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying."
Swinney said he had little doubt his team had what it takes to supplant Alabama as the best squad in college football.
"The last seven national champs, we beat 'em this season," he sad, per Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman, "so absolutely we expected to win this game."
Swinney also sang the praises of Watson, who finished second in the 2016 Heisman Trophy voting, per Auerbach: "He's the best player in the country. If anybody doubts that, it's just ridiculous. ... This was his Heisman tonight."
Watson graduated in December, but he has one more year of eligibility remaining. On Monday night, however, he said he'll exit Clemson on top, per Russo: "I think it's my time to go. Kind of end it with a bang."