TAMPA, Fla.– Deshaun Watson wrote the latest chapter in his legendary career here last night.
Clemson’s dynamic junior quarterback completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns– including the game winner on a two yard pass to one-time walk on Hunter Renfro with one second remaining— as the Tigers (14-1) defeated top seeded, previously undefeated Alabama, 35-31, to win their first national championship in 35 years before a record crowd of 74,512 at Raymond James Stadium.
Watson– who finished second to Lamar Jackson of Louisville in the Heisman balloting– should see his stock soar with NFL scouts after this brilliant performance that culminated with him leading Clemson a nine play, 69 yard scoring drive after the Tide had taken a 31-28 lead on a 30-yard run by freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts with 2:06.
“He’s the best player in the country,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “If anybody doubts it, it’s ridiculous. He didn’t lose out on the Heisman. The Heisman lost out on a chance to be attached to him. This was his Heisman tonight.”
Watson waited a year for this coronation. He played great in last year’s national championship game against Alabama, passing for 405 yards and running for an additional 73 during a 45-40 loss. But he refused to lose this time, adding another touchdown on a four-yard run showing the heart of a champion against a savage Tide defense that battered him all game. This was the best individual performance in a college championship game since Texas quarterback Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl victory over USC.
“I was thinking about Vince Young,” Watson admitted. “I wanted to be legendary. I’m speechless right now, man. It’s what God wants. He picked us for a reason. I talked to one of my coaches, and he said, “It’s a movie and it’s gonna end the right way.”
Swinney compared the epic to the Oscar winning movie, “Rocky.” “What a fight,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stomach watching this one for a while. It has to be one of the greatest games ever.”
It was a wild, roller coaster. Watson, who was selected the Offensive Player of the Game, never panicked with the game on the line. “Everyone was calm,” he said. “I looked at our offense and said let’s be legendary. God put us on earth for a reason. We work on the two minute drill every day in practice. Flash back to last year. They scored. We scored, but we were down five and ran out of time.
This time, they left us with too much time on the clock.”
Watson made all the big plays on Clemson’s final possession, none bigger than a 24-ard completion to Mike Williams that gave the Tigers a first down on the Alabama 39 and then a 17 yard completion to Jordan Leggett that gave the Tigers a first and goal at the nine with 14 seconds to play. Clemson never thought about going a game tying field goal. “We were playing to win” Swinney said. “We were putting the ball in No. 4’s hands.” Watson threw an incomplete pass on first down. Then it looked like he had thrown what looked like it might be another incomplete pass to Williams, but officials flagged defensive back Anthony Averett for pass interference, giving
Clemson a first down at the two with six seconds to play, setting up the game winner.
“It’s a blessing,” Swinney said. “It’s surreal. I told the players before the game to let the light inside them be greater than the light on them. Eight years ago goal work tails off get Clemson back on top. Tonight, on the top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying.”
As joyous as the moment was for Clemson, it had to be equally as painful for Alabama coach Nick Saban and his players. Saban was 5-0 in national championship games, winning four at Alabama and one at LSU. The Tide had won 26 straight games and was 14-0 before this game.
“They made plays. We didn’t,” Saban said. “There wasn’t one play that made a difference. I’m proud of our guys, but we didn’t finish.”
The outcome might have been different if 6-2, 228 pound sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough, who rushed for 93 yards on 16 carries and scored two touchdowns, had played in the fourth quarter. But Scarbrough, who had been a dominant force in Alabama’s SEC championship and national semi-final games, reinjured a knee and had to sit out during the key moments of this physical game.
As it was, true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who passed for 131 yards and ran for 63, had enough special moments of his own, throwing a 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard to give the Tide a 24-14 lead with 1:53 left in the third quarter and then broke loose for what looked like a game winning score after Clemson had taken a 28-24 lead on a one-yard run by fullback Wayne Gallman with 4:38 to play.
But this game belonged to Watson, who will declare for this year’s NFL draft and should be the first quarterback selected.
Swinney grabbed Watson and gave him a bear hug on the stage afterwards. “I told him, ‘I love you, ” Swinney said. ”I said, ‘This is what you came here to do.”
Dick Weiss is a sportswriter and columnist who has covered college football and college and professional basketball for the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News for 40 years. He has also co-written seven books with Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Dick Vitale and authored a tribute book on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.