By Tyler Fenwick | @Ty_Fenwick
Sports Capital Journalism Program
TAMPA, Fla. — And they say sequels aren’t as good.
The 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T will be remembered as the game Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers got back at the Alabama Crimson Tide for beating them in the same game a year ago.
Clemson’s 35-31 victory, on Deshaun Watson’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with a second to play, gave the Tigers their first national championship in 35 years.
As the confetti rained onto the field, senior linebacker Ben Boulware turned to fifth-year senior tight end Grant Radakovich and grabbed him by the shoulders with two hands. Not long after, Boulware’s voice boomed over the public address system at Raymond James Stadium.
“It’s finally coming home, baby,” Boulware screamed.
Clemson, 14-1, defeated a No. 1-ranked team for the first time in its football history. The Tigers completed a championship season with victories over Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State and Alabama, programs that had won the previous seven national championships.
Watson completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns, and led drives that produced two scores in the final 4:38. Just when it appeared that the Tigers would kick a game-tying field goal, which would have produced the first overtime championship game in the three-game history of the College Football Playoff and the second in 14 years, Clemson went for the win.
Watson’s pass to the right side of the end zone reached Renfrow after wide receiver Artavis Scott, slanting toward the left, ran into the path of Tide cornerback Marlon Humphrey. “It’s like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream,” Renfrow said.
Led by Coach Dabo Swinney, a walk-on – and self-described “crawl on” who became a member of Alabama’s 1992 national champions – the Tigers denied the Crimson Tide (14-1) a fifth championship in eight seasons.
“They made some fantastic catches and some great throws and catches,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “And the last couple drives when they had the ball…we just didn’t make a play when we needed to. We needed to get a sack. We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made the plays and we didn’t.”
After the trophy presentation, freshman offensive lineman Noah Green brought down a Clemson banner that was hanging on the wall on the way to the locker room.
“Where you gonna put it at?” asked junior offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder.
“My living room!” replied Green.
But that scene—the excitement, the tears of joy, the confetti angels on the field—was so close to being doused in Alabama crimson.
Following a 30-yard touchdown run by freshman Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts with 2:07 to play, all eyes turned to Watson.
In two championship games against Alabama, Watson was responsible for 941 yards of total offense and eight touchdowns. But as the seconds vanished, Watson and the Tigers were in danger of losing for the second consecutive year.
Instead of getting nervous about having to orchestrate a two-minute offense in the national championship, down by three points, Watson calmed down.
“But I just smiled right when they scored,” said Watson, who now has a touchdown pass in 31 consecutive games. “I seen the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew, I just told my guys, hey, let’s be legendary, let’s go be great.”
Watson’s final two drives were his best of the night. He completed nine passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Two of those completions were to Mike Williams, who had a reception on either side of the field for 50 yards.
He told Watson he wanted the ball down the stretch.
“Believe in me,” he told his quarterback. “Just throw it up there and I’ll go up there and get it.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Williams wasn’t oblivious to the Alabama defense often choosing to double-team him or give safety help over the top.
“It’s Alabama, right?” he said rhetorically. “Why can’t they play one-on-one?”
With 1:56 to play, and the Tigers facing a second-and-5 situation at their 37, Williams made a leaping catch for a 24-yard gain to the Alabama 39. On second and goal from the Alabama 9, Williams drew a pass interference penalty that put the ball at the Tide 2-yard line and set up the winning score.
Alabama held a two-possession lead three separate times, and the Crimson Tide defense wasn’t forfeiting much to Clemson, only allowing 14 points through three quarters against an offense that came into the game scoring 39.5 points per game.
Then the fourth quarter came, and Clemson found its rhythm on offense, scoring 21 points. While that was happening, the defense was getting almost every stop it needed, a complete reversal from last season when the Crimson Tide scored 24 fourth-quarter points.
Senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, who finished with six tackles, said Monday night’s game was a shot at revenge for his defense, another opportunity to get it right. This time, the Tigers stepped up.
Freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who had four tackles, wasn’t part of the disappointment last season, but he still found something special for himself after the game.
“These are my championship gloves,” he told Watkins as they sat in the locker room after the game.
Swinney, who now has his first national championship, didn’t want his program’s first win over a No. 1 team to be branded the wrong way.
“There was no upset tonight,” said Swinney, who notched his 20th win over a ranked team. “That’s the last thing I told them when we left the locker room. I said, when we win this game tonight I don’t want to hear one word about this being an upset.”
After going toe-to-toe with Alabama two years in a row, and finally beating the Crimson Tide this time, that’s not likely.