The highly anticipated matchup between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama did not disappoint in the second annual College Football Playoff National Championship Game. It was Alabama outlasting Deshaun Watson and Clemson, 45-40, to seal their fourth national championship since 2009 in a tight battle at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Nick Saban improved his record to 5-0 in national championship games, putting him just one behind former Tide coach Bear Bryant for the most all-time.
“I’m so happy for the team, this was all about winning the game for them,” Saban said on the field after the game. “It’s great for our fans, it’s great for the state of Alabama but I wanted to win thing for these guys.” Alabama (14-1) ended the season on a 12-game winning streak and handed Clemson (14-1) their first loss.
Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry rushed for three touchdowns and 158 yards on 36 carries, his 10th game of the season eclipsing 100 yards. Quarterback Jake Coker threw for a career-high 335 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores went to O.J. Howard, who caught five passes for 208 yards and his first two receiving touchdowns of the season. Special teams and big plays were the difference for Alabama, who scored four touchdowns of 50 yards or more on top of recovering an onside kick and returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
A back-and-forth affair for three quarters changed for good early in the fourth after Alabama tied the game at 24 with a 33-yard field goal from Adam Griffith. The ensuing kickoff was a surprise onside kick, recovered by the Crimson Tide at midfield. Two plays later, Coker connected with Howard for a 51-yard touchdown, their second scoring hookup of the night. After scoring 10 points in 49 seconds, the Crimson Tide was up 31-24 and wouldn’t trail the rest of the game.
Clemson countered with a field-goal drive to make it a four-point game, but Kenyon Drake immediately took the kickoff 95 yards to take momentum back and stretch Alabama’s lead to 38-27 with 7:31 to go. Watson led the Tigers on a 75-yard touchdown drive but when Clemson failed on the two-point conversion, Alabama was still up 38-33. Alabama got the ball back and added insurance with a 75-yard touchdown drive of their own, pushing their lead to 45-33 with just 1:07 remaining. The drive was finished off by Henry’s third rushing score of the night. Clemson would add a late touchdown with 12 seconds remaining but their onside kick would be recovered by the Tide.
In a battle between two of the top six defenses in the country, offense was on display as the teams combined for over 900 yards of offense and 71 points. Alabama ranked No. 2 overall defense (256.8 yards) and No. 3 in scoring defense (14.4 points) but the Tigers’ potent offense was able to pile up 550 yards of total offense and 40 points. Clemson boasted the No. 6 total defense (301.6 yards) in the nation but allowed 473 yards to Alabama.
Watson was dynamic, throwing for 401 yards and four touchdowns in addition to rushing for 73 yards on 20 attempts in the loss. The Heisman finalist ends the season with over 4,100 passing yards and over 1,100 rushing yards while being responsible for 47 touchdowns.
The Crimson Tide becomes just the second team in college football’s poll era to win four titles in seven seasons.