The roots for this historic 35-31 win over the top ranked Alabama stretch back as far as one wishes to trace them.
In split seconds, it is the instinctual decisions by players that determine the fates of their teams.
In seconds, one looks at the seven seconds of any given football play. In hours, the four hours and eight minutes had proven that Clemson is the best team in the nation.
In ten days, Clemson and Alabama beat their respective opponents soundly to advance to the long awaited rematch.
Over the past months, both teams won fourteen games as the college football season wore on.
Over the past year, each team used the previous national championship as motivation – for Alabama it was a desire to dominate, and for Clemson it was revenge.
Over the past nine years, Coach Swinney has built this program from a struggling ‘wanna-be’ contender to a national powerhouse. Over the past sixteen, Bowden and Swinney transformed the program from one of the worst in facilities to one of the best.
One can go back to 1981, or even 1889 – but the idea is that in the paraphrased words of Ben Boulware, this win is for all of the stadium record setting 74,512 attendees, former players, coaches, and the fans.
The win was also about heart, because Clemson had more heart than Alabama. The pain of last year fueled the drive for this year and it made the sweet taste of victory so much sweeter.
While this doesn’t top the 2006 Rose Bowl win by Texas, it will undoubtedly stand as one of the best national championship games since they started at the end of the 1998 season.
The latest emerging star in the Alabama running back tradition made his impact early and often, as Bo Scarbrough rushed for a 25-yard score with 9:23 left in the first quarter and a 37-yard rush with 10:42 left in the second quarter in order to put Alabama up with a 14-0 lead. Although Alabama struggled on offense other than on those two drives, it was able to put together two good drives to put Clemson in a hole early.
It looked as if Clemson’s offense would never show up on the field until a tunnel screen pass was tipped. Ordinarily that causes problems, but in this case electric receiver Deon Cain dodged two Alabama defenders and turned a short throw into a 43 yard gain that gave the Tigers life.
Almost immediately after, the Tigers faced third and ten on Alabama’s 39-yard line. Was the screen a fluke or the beginning of a comeback? Jordan Leggett answered that question as he caught a 26 yard pass down the seam, and two plays later Watson scrambled into the left corner of the end zone for six points and a huge energy boost for Clemson.
The teams then unsuccessfully tried to move the ball down the field and Clemson entered the locker room down 14-7 against Alabama. Clemson had rushed 22 times for 50 yards, while Alabama had rushed 21 times for 143 yards. On the flip side, Watson had thrown for 203 yards while Hurts had thrown for a paltry 40 yards.
The score was ugly, but the problem plaguing the Tigers was that they had lost both of their fumbles while the Tide had not lost either of their two fumbles – putting the Tigers down by two in the turnover margin.
The one thing Clemson couldn’t afford to do when they came out with the ball in the second half is turn the ball over – which is exactly what happened as Ryan Anderson had forced a rare Wayne Gallman fumble. It looked as if the score would be 21-7 and a mountain to climb, but star walk on Hunter Renfrow tackled him at the sixteen yard line. This enabled the defense to hold Alabama to three points (17-7 lead) and if one is a big believer in momentum, this is the one play that turned the tide and was arguably the most pivotal play in the game.
Clemson then responded with a solid drive that stuttered when a Hunter Renfrow catch on third and one was ruled incomplete. Deshaun Watson then pooch kicked the ball 38 yards to the five yard line and flipped the field position battle that had been plaguing Clemson all night long.
Alabama went three and out and Clemson obtained the ball with 42 yards to go to paydirt. It only took four plays and 63 second for Watson to engineer a drive capped off by a 24 yard Hunter Renfrow touchdown catch while burning four and five star recruits. The score was now 17-14 Clemson with 7:03 left in the third quarter.
Around this point, Jon Solomon of CBS tweeted a statistic that summarized the game up to that game perfectly: “Since Alabama led 14-0, Clemson has outgained Crimson Tide 210-30. Total yards for the game: Clemson 287, Alabama 202.”
Both offenses then reverted back to struggling until déjà vu scared Clemson all over again. With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, the normally inaccurate Jalen Hurts found tight end and Clemson nightmare OJ Howard wide open on a wheel route for a 68 yard score as he walked in untouched and haunting Clemson fans again.
The Crimson Tide had abandoned the running game in the third quarter and it helped Clemson get back in the game. The magic was far from over, as college football had fifteen historic moments of entertainment left in store until next August.
Clemson had two choices to respond with after the OJ Howard score: they could fold up shop and quit, or fight back. When the Saban led Tide entered the fourth quarter with a double digit lead like they did this time (24-14), they had a flawless 97-0 record. The odds were almost insurmountable.
With Dabo Swinney at the helm, there is only one acceptable response, and with Deshaun Watson at quarterback, anything is possible. Clemson marched down the field and Mike Williams caught a four yard score with 14:00 left to play on a drive that had nine plays, 72 yards and took 2:47 off the clock. The score was 24-21 Alabama, and the saga was far from over.
For the next eight minutes, the defenses forced the offenses to punt back and forth as the game was teeming with excitement and anticipation on who would create the next big break. Around this time, BO Scarbrough suffered a gruesome broken leg injury that helped to neutralize the Alabama offense.
A six play, 88-yard drive that used Watson’s arms, legs, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Tide defender Da’Ron Payne ended in a Gallman 1 yard plunge into the end zone to give the Tigers their first lead all night long with four minutes left.
The Crimson Tide machine was not done rolling and was determined to come back and win the game. On third and sixteen, Hurts completed a pass to Adarius Stewart, and Coach Saban made the call to go for it on 4th and 1.
Backup running back Damien Harris ran for five yards, and then a trick play came out of nowhere. Adarius Stewart threw a 24 yard pass to OJ Howard on a double pass, and then Jalen Hurts used his electric legs to rush for thirty yards and what Alabama hoped would be the game winning score.
Deshaun Watson was commanding the offense for the final time in his Clemson career. Down 31-28 with 2:01 left, 68 yards to go, and two timeouts in his pocket, Watson said to his teammates “Let’s be legendary.” And legendary they were, a drive for the ages they conducted.
A pass to Leggett for five, Williams for 24, a negative four-yard play to Scott that Gallman salvaged six total yards from. Watson ran for a yard, and then Renfrow caught a six-yard pass.
Coach Swinney didn’t call a timeout, and a spike turned the situation into 19 seconds left and 26 yards to go.
Jordan Leggett had previously dropped a third down pass that was a huge momentum killer for Clemson, but he made one of the toughest catches all night and year as he snagged a 17 yard pass to put Clemson at the nine yard line and in position to use their second time out with 14 seconds left.
Watson threw an incomplete pass to Leggett, now nine seconds were left.
Watson threw a fade to Williams that I captured on camera, as Anthony Averett mauled him and gave Clemson first down at the two with six seconds left.
Down by three with six seconds left, the plan was to throw one pass and then kick if they could. “Crush” was a Bill Walsh concept and a pick play that left everyone’s favorite underdog Hunter Renfrow open. Watson’s throw was on the money, Renfrow caught it, and his name was forever sealed into Clemson lore as the Tigers scored the extra point to go up 35-31 with one second left.
The media and I rushed the field with one second left, but were directed off the field as the referees had to confirm the onside kick. Then the Tigers had to get into “Ace, Victory” and finish off the game with what is known as a quarterback kneel.
What was presumed to be impossible was completed. Clemson defeated what was regarded as Nick Saban’s best Alabama team, putting up 511 yards on the legendary Tide defense, all while losing the turnover margin by two.
For more astounding statistics, look at the rushing log. While running the football is important, Clemson won as they rushed 42 times for 91 yards (2.2 average a play). Alabama rushed 34 times for 221 yards (6.5 per rush). Despite Alabama’s desire to pound the ball to victory, Clemson forced the Tide to play their game late and displayed the importance of a star quarterback.
Watson threw for 420 yards on 57 attempts and three scores, while rushing 21 times for 43 net yards (74 gained). He touched the ball 77 times on 99 plays, changed Clemson football forever, and destroyed the Death Star of College Football in the process.
While Jalen Hurts is not a bad player and is an excellent leader, his woeful passing skills were exposed. He ran for 63 yards and passed for 131 yards (68 of which came on one play). He couldn’t force Clemson’s defense to respect his arm.
Statistics can be analyzed and re-analyzed – and they are worth analyzing. But two words explain why Clemson won: TEAM and HEART. Clemson played more cohesively as a team and displayed more heart than the Tide did. This is not meant to disrespect Alabama, but destiny happens and Clemson was a benefactor of it.
Embrace the joy of destiny.
As a journalist, my job is to remain neutral, take what happened, and communicate it in an interesting and accessible fashion. I have maintained a professional level of neutrality and a business like mentality for the past 24 hours. It is a part of the job that I respect and it helps me to focus.
But as journalists we cannot be emotional robots either, and I obviously have a vested interest in Clemson winning. I cover Clemson every week, attend Clemson, grew up rooting for Clemson, have two alumnus parents, and am invested in Clemson itself.
When I witnessed the key moments of this season, I knew I was in the midst of something special. When I rushed the field with one second left to take pictures and video, I saw 35 years of waiting, pain, and joy all condensed in seconds. When I saw my classmates in the locker room, I saw a glimpse of the rewards for their sacrifices as student-athletes and couldn’t help but be amazed and soak in the moment that the Clemson family had long awaited.
When I saw the trophy presentation and I saw the past and present greats of Clemson football, I couldn’t help but shed a tear at what myself and many others had waited so long for.
While I focused on my job of capturing the joy of my community, I also sat and thought about the joy this journey has provided me. I am thankful for everyone who has helped me personally and professionally, including (but not an exhaustive list) my boss here at Tiger Time (Guy Prokay), and David Hood of Tiger Net.
While I despaired at the loss 364 days ago against Alabama, little did I know that I would watch the second act of this in a capacity that I only dreamed of last year. I will be covering Clemson Football here in the Spring as well as next year, and I look forward to improving my craft and chronicling the Tiger’s journey on the gridiron.
While I hope that you read and digest what I have to say about football, if you don’t remember anything else I have written thus far – remember these lessons I have learned this year: Love God, work hard, and enjoy the joyful moments.
The 2016 season is over, the 2017 season begins, and I will be back for Spring Football. Until then, see you later.