By Michael Whitlow | @couldbelikemike
Sports Capital Journalism Program
TAMPA, Fla. — 106-6.
That was Alabama’s record under Nick Saban before Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T with a lead at halftime.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with just a second left to end Alabama’s chance at a repeat in a thrilling 35-31 victory. Watson took a beating from the vaunted Alabama defense throughout the night, but didn’t turn the ball over, completed 36 of 56 pass attempts for 420 yards and four total touchdowns.
“I think they made some fantastic catches and some great throws and catches, and you know, we just didn’t make a play when we needed to,” Saban said during the post-game press conference Tuesday morning.
“We needed to get a sack,” he said. “We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made plays and we didn’t.”
The Alabama defense had four sacks. The offense didn’t turn the ball over, while the defense forced two Clemson fumbles; one that set up a field goal that led to a 17-7 lead for Alabama in the third quarter.
But Clemson was a perfect 4-for-4 in the red zone with four touchdowns, including the game-winner. Watson led a nine-play, 68-yard drive in two minutes to complete one of the greatest fourth quarter performances in college football history.
For the third time in the 21st Century, the discussion of dynasty status ended suddenly at the finish of a gripping post-season game. Just as the 2002 Miami Hurricanes lost to Ohio State in a double-overtime Fiesta Bowl and the 2005 Southern California Trojans were defeated in the Rose Bowl by Vince Young and Texas, the Alabama season ended in heartbreak.
“You’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said of Watson. “He’s a competitor and that’s what you expect.”
Watson seemed to heat up as Alabama’s offense cooled late in the third quarter. Alabama’s tank of a running back – 6-foot, 2-inch, 228-pound sophomore Bo Scarbrough – went down with a lower leg injury with 2:19 left in the quarter.
“He’s certainly been a bell cow for us,” Saban said, “and he has certainly, because of his size and durability, he makes it difficult when the defense gets worn down a little bit.”
Scarbrough had 93 of Alabama’s 221 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 25 and 37 yards, but missed the final quarter when the Tide had a chance to build on a 10-point lead.
With Watson’s third touchdown pass of the night – the second to Renfrow – Saban’s opportunity to tie Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most championships (6) all-time as a head coach was gone. Saban won a title in 2003 with the LSU Tigers, followed by four titles with Alabama since 2009. Alabama’s titles during the Bryant era took place when final polls came before bowl games, with the 1964 and 1973 seasons ending in dramatic losses.
Monday’s loss also ended Alabama’s chance to become the first team in college football to finish a season 15-0 since the University of Pennsylvania in 1897.
When asked if this loss hurt more than others in the past, Saban put his sorrow on those that competed in one of college football’s best rematches and one of the best title games in the era of the Alabama’s dominance.
“I think every loss is painful,” Saban said, “and my loss is really for the bad feeling that I have for the players who have worked so hard to create this opportunity for themselves and not to be able to finish this is very disappointing for me. But because of them.”
The Alabama locker room was a quiet, frustrated setting. Jalen Hurts, who nearly became the second true starting freshman quarterback to lead a team to a national championship in the modern era, stood in front of his locker in a tan suit.
Hurts’ 30-yard run with 2:07 to play, which started with a stumbling scramble and ended with an Alabama celebration in the end zone, appeared to become an historic difference. But now, the celebration down the hall, Hurts repeated a new theme. His face was emotionless. His words were a monotone. “My sophomore season starts tomorrow,” Hurts said several times.
“We rarely lose,” Alabama linebacker Tim Williams said in the locker room after the loss. “And when we do lose, it’s a shock. It shocks everybody. Saban came in and said what really woke me up, ‘One game can’t define us. We were undefeated up until we played Clemson, a great team.’ We played a good team. It wasn’t no average team. It had one of the best guys in college football in Deshaun Watson.”
Average doesn’t define college football’s winningest program of the last decade.
And average doesn’t define what took place on Monday night.
“I think the perseverance and the resiliency that this team has showed certainly makes them winners in my book, and I’ll always remember them for that,” Saban said when asked about how he wants his team this season to be remembered.
106-7. On an unforgettable night, an Alabama halftime lead provided no guarantees.
Nobody’s going to forget this bunch or this game for a long time.