After disappointing semifinal contests, the national championship game lived up to the hype as the Clemson Tigers battled the Alabama Crimson Tide in a gritty 45-40 loss on Monday evening in Glendale.
When Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry pushed his way in for a one-yard touchdown run on his 36th carry of the night as the clock ticked down towards one minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Alabama put the game out of reach after a back-and-forth contest. Henry finished with 158 yards and three touchdowns on those 36 carries, even though Clemson often stymied his efforts in the second half.
A 95-yard touchdown return by Alabama running back Kenyon Drake was a critical blow to Clemson, putting the Tigers down 11 points in the fourth quarter after cutting the lead to three with a field goal. The kickoff coverage lost contain initially after coming out of a bunched formation and the kicker took a poor angle against the speed Drake, leaving little but the open field and a pursuing defender to stop Drake, who dove into the end zone to finish the game-changing play.
One of the biggest plays of the game up to that point came earlier in the fourth quarter when Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker stood tall in the face of a pass rush from Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware and delivered a perfectly-thrown, 38-yard pass to ArDarius Stewart down the sideline that keyed a field goal to tie the game.
Another momentum swing came soon after, as Alabama took advantage of a tight Clemson kick return formation to recover an onside kick. For the second time, a blown coverage by the Tigers allowed tight end OJ Howard to run free down the seam for a big-time 51-yard touchdown run, one of four plays by Alabama that went for more than 50 yards on the day. The two touchdown catches equaled Howard's career total and his first catch and run accounted for his first foray into the end zone since November 9, 2013.
Howard delivered a third huge play after Clemson cut the lead to five by turning the corner on a short pass on 2nd and 12 out a timeout and accelerating down the sideline with incredible athleticism for a 6'6, 242-pounder, eventually gaining 63 yards. At the end of the game, Howard finished with five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns to nearly match his total of 210 yards in nine conference games this season.
Clemson entered the contest with the No. 7 overall defense in FEI, but struggled in giving up big plays, ranking tied for 76th entering the game by allowing eight plays of 50 or more yards. Ultimately, the savvy play calls by Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and the resulting coverage mistakes by Clemson were too much to overcome against such a strong defense.
Alabama struck first in the game, winning the field position battle as the two teams exchanged punts on the first two possessions, then creating a seam for Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry for a 50-yard touchdown run. On 3rd and 1, the Clemson defense sold out to get a stop and paid dearly for the choice, as Henry only had one player to beat after getting beyond the line of scrimmage.
The gain gave Henry 71 yards on seven carries, coming close to besting his mark of 75 yards on 20 carries in the national semifinal against Michigan State and doing so only halfway through the first quarter.
The Tigers responded, mounting a six-play, 54-yard scoring drive keyed by a 3rd and 4 conversion by quarterback Deshaun Watson on a scramble that culminated on the next play with a 31-yard touchdown pass to walk-on wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. Watson put the pass on the money, but Renfro's effort helped made the play, as he battled through physical coverage on an inside-out switch route and then attacked the football to bring it in amid two defenders.
Renfro took another huge step in turning himself into one of the most unlikely national championship game stars in modern history by shaking star Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick with another touchdown catch, this time from 11 yards on a great anticipation throw from Watson. The drive came after a missed field goal by Alabama and once again featured some help from Watson's legs when he scrambled for 11 yards on the first play.
Despite the incredible talent the Alabama defense boats, Watson started the game locked in, hitting 7-of-11 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, while adding four carries for 23 yards through the first three drives. However, his first big mistake came as Clemson looked ready to further solidify momentum against a reeling Alabama defense when Watson anticipated a wheel route clearing man-to-man coverage, but Crimson Tide cornerback Eddie Jackson read the play and collected his sixth interception of the season.
Alabama took advantage with a methodical seven-play drive that covered 42 yards and ended on a short touchdown plunge after converting a 3rd and 7 from the Clemson nine-yard line.
For the rest of the first half, the teams traded punts to enter halftime tied 14-14, as four total first-half sacks by the Tigers helped stop Crimson Tide drives, aided by strong coverage downfield on several plays. Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker entered the game having been sacked 20 times all season.
Another big play from Alabama opened the second half when a coverage bust from the Clemson safety allowed Alabama tight end OJ Howard to run uncovered down the sideline to easily score a 53-yard touchdown. Two big plays from Crimson Tide defensive backs kept a touchdown off the board in response. First, Fitzpatrick knocked down a pass in the end zone, then Ronnie Harrison knocked away a perfect touch throw from Watson to Artavis Scott on third down in the end zone to force a field goal.
The surprising mistake by Alabama was in playing man coverage with no spy on Watson, allowing him to scramble freely when he couldn't find a target open in the passing game. It wasn't until late in the third quarter that the Crimson Tide finally committed a defender to spying Watson and it immediately paid off. The decision to pinch down on zone reads by Watson was equally baffling, as the Alabama front consistently stuffed the run all night, as they have done all season.
By late in the fourth quarter, however, the Crimson Tide defensive line started taking over the game and punishing Watson, who had little room to run and much less time in the pocket to explore his downfield reads.
The season didn't finish with a national championship for the Tigers, but head coach Dabo Swinney and his team fought valiantly the entire night despite some injuries and suspensions, ultimately turning in a compelling performance that showcased the team's strengths and confirmed that Clemson is one of the two best teams in the country beyond any doubt.
Moral victories in national championship games may still be painful, the Swinney's team deserves to hold their collective heads high on this night.