National Championship Game: #2 Clemson Tigers wins title with 35-31 victory over #1 Alabama Crimson Tide in instant classic

National Championship Game: #2 Clemson Tigers wins title with 35-31 victory over #1 Alabama Crimson Tide in instant classic

Deshaun Watson totaled 443 yards as Clemson scored 21 fourth quarter points to claim the school's first national championship since 1981 and avenge last year's loss to the Crimson Tide in this game.

john-lupo
John Lupo

In one of the greatest National Championship Games in college football history, the Clemson Tigers won their first national title since 1981 with a stirring 35-31 win over defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide. 

Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson found wide receiver Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard touchdown pass with one second to go. The loss is the first in a championship game for Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban after having previously gone 5-0.

Alabama strikes first, takes touchdown lead after one quarter

Clemson won the toss and elected to defer and after forcing Alabama to punt, they were faced with a 4th and 1 on the Crimson Tide 41, but running back Wayne Gallman was stopped for no gain. That proved to be costly as Alabama needed only three plays to take the lead on running back Bo Scarbrough's 25-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.

Scarbrough opened the scoring in the national title game/Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Scarbrough opened the scoring in the national title game/Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Alabama defense was living up to its billing and they forced the first turnover of the game when Watson fumbled, recovered by Ryan Anderson. The Clemson defense was asserting themselves, stopping the defending champions after the fumble. The quarter ended with Alabama ahead 7-0.

Teams trade touchdowns in second quarter, Clemson stays within striking distance

With the Alabama defense holding the Clemson offense in check, the Crimson Tide sought to extend their lead and that's exactly what happened 4:18 into the second quarter as Hurts led Alabama on a five play, 74 yard drive that took just 1:24, culminating with Scarbrough's 37 yard scamper, his second touchdown of the game to give the Crimson Tide a 14-0 lead.

With a 26-game winning streak and a 14-point lead, things seemed to be going all in favor of Alabama. Needing a response before falling further behind, Clemson finally got their offense going, Watson's eight yard run capping a seven play, 87 yard drive to cut the Alabama lead to 14-7.

Watson's first touchdown of the game kept Clemson close/Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Watson's first touchdown of the game kept Clemson close/Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Tigers nearly got a golden opportunity to perhaps cut into the lead more or tie the game when, after a Clemson punt, Alabama returner Gehrig Dieter fumbled, but fortunately for him, his team was able to recover it. Punts were exchanged to end the half and Alabama entered the locker room with a 14-7 lead.

Alabama continues to control game, takes ten point lead into fourth quarter

Uncharacteristic nerves seemed to be getting the better of Clemson as they received the second half kickoff and four plays into that opening drive, Gallman fumbled, recovered by Anderson, his second recovery of the night. The Tigers' defense clamped down and held Alabama to an Adam Griffith 27-yard field goal to boost the Crimson Tide's lead to 17-7.

Perhaps the key possession of the game came on the very next drive as Clemson answered the Alabama field goal with a quick four play, 42 yard drive that ended with Watson connecting with Renfrow from 24 yards out to cut into the Crimson Tide lead, which was now 17-14 and giving Clemson a foothold in the contest.

Alabama isn't the defending national champions for nothing and as they took over with less than three minutes to go in the third quarter and after Hurts ran for six and five yards and an incomplete pass by Hurts, Alabama took a timeout. Following that, Hurts hit tight end O.J. Howard for a 68-yard touchdown that gave the Crimson Tide a 24-14, which would be the score after 45 minutes and set the stage for one of the greatest finishes in college football history.

Howard's 68-yard touchdown reception appeared to put Alabama in complete control of the title game/Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Howard's 68-yard touchdown reception appeared to put Alabama in complete control of the title game/Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Lead changes hands on final three possessions, Clemson scores on last offensive play of the game to take first title since 1981

Saban is 97-0 when entering the fourth quarter with a double digit lead, but Clemson was eager to change that record and they opened the fourth quarter with another Watson touchdown. This time, the two-time Heisman trophy runner-up found Artavis Scott from nine yards away to once again cut the gap to three points at 24-21.

Following the touchdown, the next five possessions were punts, three by Alabama, two by Clemson. With 6:33 to play, the Tigers drove 88 yards in six plays as Gallman gave the two-time ACC champions their first lead of the game at 28-24 with a one-yard TD run, aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Alabama's Da'Ron Payne.

It was Alabama's turn for some late dramatics and on the ensuing possession, the Crimson Tide faced a 4th and 1 from their own 41 yard line. Damien Harris ran for the first down and two plays later, Hurts scampered 30 yards to give Alabama the lead back, 35-31 with 2:07 to play, setting the stage for a memorable finish.

Clemson took over at their own 32 yard line. Watson completed passes to Jordan Leggett and Mike Williams that brought them to the Alabama 39 with 1:41 left. Facing a 3rd and 3 with under a minute to play, Watson found Renfrow for a first down. 

After Leggett set up the Tigers at the nine-yard line, Watson's next pass fell incomplete, but Anthony Averett was called for pass interference, giving Clemson first and goal at the two-yard line. On the Tigers 99th offensive play of the game, Watson found Renfrow in the right corner of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown, giving Clemson a 35-31 lead. 

Renfrow (13) is mobbed by his teammates after scoring the touchdown that delivered Clemson their first title in 35 years/Photo: Brian Blanco/Getty Images
Renfrow (13) is mobbed by his teammates after scoring the touchdown that delivered Clemson their first title in 35 years/Photo: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Not wanting to give Alabama any chance of a return, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney called for an onside kick, executed perfectly by kicker Greg Huegel as he recovered it. Fittingly, the ball was in Watson's hands as he took a knee to end the game and give Clemson their first national championship in 35 years.

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