GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) – The last step toward making Alabama’s run of championships under Nick Saban the greatest in college football history was the toughest.
The Crimson Tide needed all its power and speed. It needed all its talent and steely resolve. When that alone couldn’t do it, it was up to one gutsy trick to help win the fourth national title of the Saban dynasty.
Derrick Henry, O.J. Howard and Kenyan Drake hit No. 1 Clemson with long touchdowns, and No. 2 Alabama outlasted the dynamic play of Deshaun Watson to win the College Football Playoff championship 45-40 on Monday night.
The Crimson Tide (14-1) won its three previous championship game appearances in runaway fashion. This game was an instant classic – a relief for fans who sat through the blowouts that turned the New Year’s Six lineup into a dud.
It finally broke open on perhaps the boldest call of Saban’s career.
With 10:34 left in the fourth quarter and Alabama having just tied the game at 24-24, Saban took a gamble to try to keep the ball away from Watson. He called an onside kick, a play the Tide calls “Pop Kick.” Kicker Adam Griffith lofted the ball just far enough downfield and toward the sideline and Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey caught it over the shoulder at midfield.
“It was tough. It really was,” said Saban, who now has more national titles than every other coach but Bear Bryant, the man who first made Alabama synonymous with college football greatness.
“I made the decision to do it because the score was (tied) and we were tired on defense and weren’t doing a great job of getting them stopped and felt like if we didn’t do something or take a chance to change the momentum of the game that we wouldn’t have a chance to win,” Saban said.
Moments later, Alabama took back the lead for good. For the second time, Clemson (14-1) lost track of tight end Howard in coverage and Jake Coker hit him in stride for a 51-yard touchdown to make it 31-24 with 9:45 left.
Clemson responded with a field goal to make it 31-27, and boom! Another Alabama big play. Drake broke free and streaked down the sideline for a 95-yard kickoff return, diving the last 5 yards to the pylon and a touchdown.
Watson threw his third touchdown pass to make it 38-33 with 4:40 left, and then Alabama went back to its workhorse Heisman Trophy winner. Henry plunged into the end zone for his third touchdown of the game to make it 45-33 with 1:07 left.
“We stand toe-to-toe with everybody in the country,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “This program doesn’t take a backseat to anybody.”
Watson threw another touchdown pass to cap a wild 40-point fourth quarter, but would not get another chance. Clemson’s onside kick went out of bounds. Coker took a knee and after a two-year drought that felt like eternity in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was back on top.
After a loss to Ole Miss in mid-September, there were doubters. Saban used them to fuel his team.
“There weren’t many people earlier in the year who thought they could do it,” he said.
The Crimson Tide became the second team in college football’s poll era, dating back to 1936, to win four titles in seven seasons.
Alabama joins Notre Dame, which won four titles from 1943-49, but those Fighting Irish never even played in bowl games, much less two playoff games. For Saban, it is his fifth national championship – four in his nine seasons at Alabama – leaving him only one short of Bryant.
Watson gave the Tide all it could handle, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and conjured up memories of Vince Young’s miraculous performance for Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl that derailed Southern California’s dynasty.
The sophomore, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, had 478 total yards against a loaded Tide defense and bested Young’s 467 yards against the Trojans. But Watson couldn’t finish the job to win the national title the way Young did in Pasadena.
“All the stats don’t really matter to me,” Watson said. “I just wanted to get the win and do something that we haven’t done in 34 years.”
Instead, Saban and the Tide raised another trophy, their first in this new playoff system, and got another confetti shower. It is the Tide’s 11th national title in the poll era – 10 AP and one coaches’ poll – and more than any other school.
Alabama was a unanimous No. 1 in the final AP poll and Clemson finished No. 2.
The Tide hit Clemson early with Henry, who scored the game’s first touchdown on a 50-yard burst through the middle. He finished with 158 yards on 36 carries. Howard was the offensive player of the game with five catches for 208 yards, including a 63-yarder that set up Alabama’s final score.
After Watson and walk-on Hunter Renfrow hooked up for two touchdowns to give Clemson a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, Henry tied it up with a 1-yard plunge.
Back and forth it went.
Alabama had never been challenged like this in a championship game under Saban. Alabama pulled away from Texas for Saban’s first Tide title to end the 2009 season. Alabama blanked LSU for the next in 2011 and crushed Notre Dame to repeat in 2012.
Trying to become the first FBS team to go 15-0, Clemson did not crumble under the force of Alabama’s might.
But all those five-star recruits and future NFL players that dot the Alabama roster showed they also have plenty of resiliency and toughness. And Saban, the quintessential CEO coach, showed he had a little riverboat gambler in him.
That onside kicked stunned the stadium and Clemson, and brought a big grin to the face of the country’s most serious coach.
The Tide will send another batch of players to the NFL this year, as Saban always does. There is another wave ready to roll.
“I think as long as he’s in Alabama,” Coker said, “Alabama is going to be up at the top.”