An onside kick. And then a kick in the gut.
That one-two power punch catapulted Alabama to its fourth national title in eight years as the Crimson Tide held off No. 1 Clemson, 45-40.
The Tigers were bidding to complete an unbeaten season and capture the school’s first national championship in 34 years. But they were upended in a back-and-forth title bout, with Alabama ultimately celebrating in a rain of sparkling gold confetti.
The tense battle — as entertaining as any national title game since the epic Texas-USC Rose Bowl match in 2006 — hinged largely on two special teams plays in the fourth quarter.
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The first came after the Crimson Tide tied the score on a field goal with just over 10 minutes to go, catching Clemson off guard with an onside kick that ‘Bama recovered at midfield.
Two plays later, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker found a wide open O.J. Howard on a 51-yard touchdown pass that gave Alabama a 31-24 lead.
After Clemson responded with a field goal, Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, bringing Alabama fans to their feet in the crowd of 75,765.
“Special teams did it for us,” said Nick Saban, who won his fourth national title at Alabama and fifth overall as a head coach. “Sort of changed the momentum of the game.”
Said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: “Great play by them. That was obviously a huge momentum play.”
Desperate, Clemson marched 75 yards for a touchdown. But the Crimson Tide sealed the win after Coker found Howard yet again on another long pass play, setting up Derrick Henry’s short touchdown run with a minute left.
Clemson mustered a too-late touchdown, and it was over.
Monday’s matchup in the College Football Playoff National Championship marked the 50th all-time meeting of the nation’s top two teams. And it lived up to billing.
Clemson (14-1) and No. 2 Alabama (14-1) put on an offensive display early, with the marquee stars for both teams — Henry and Deshaun Watson — providing most of the fireworks. And neither team let up.
The Tigers racked up 550 yards of total offense to 473 for Alabama, and 31 first downs to the Crimson Tide’s 18.
But it wasn’t enough.
Henry and Alabama were the first to strike.
The Heisman Trophy winner shot through a huge hole in the Clemson line, taking the ball 50 yards into the end zone to put the Crimson Tide on top, 7-0.
But Watson — the Clemson quarterback and third-place finisher in the Heisman voting — struck back with a 31-yard touchdown throwing strike to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.
Then, as the first quarter ended, Clemson grabbed a 14-7 lead after Watson connected with Renfrow once more on an 11-yard scoring pass.
How significant was that?
In all of their first quarters this season, Alabama had given up exactly one touchdown and a total of 19 points. Clemson came up with two TD’s and 14 points in the first quarter of Monday’s title game.
The Tigers had a chance to increase their lead early in the second quarter when Alabama was forced to punt on the ensuing possession.
But Watson was intercepted by Eddie Jackson out of Boyd Anderson (Fort Lauderdale Lakes), setting up Alabama’s tying score when Henry dove in from the 1 to make it 14-14.
Henry carried the ball 20 times for 128 yards in the first half alone while Clemson’s Watson completed 12 of 18 passes for 162 yards and rushed nine times for 45 yards.
The Tigers suffered a potentially significant loss in the second quarter, though, when cornerback Mackensie Alexander re-injured his left hamstring and didn’t return. The absence of the brash-talking Alexander might have paid off for Alabama when blown coverage by Clemson left Howard wide open down the deep sideline. And Coker found him for a 53-yard scoring pass to make it 21-14.
Howard, who had not caught a touchdown pass the entire season, was a secret weapon Clemson never saw coming. He caught five passes for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“We just had three busts,” Swinney said of Clemson’s failure to cover Howard. “We just had three critical errors.”
Coker, though, was under extreme pressure most of the night. He was sacked five times — three by Kevin Dodd and two by Shaq Lawson, whose status for the game was uncertain due to a knee injury — within the first three quarters alone.
And after a Clemson field goal was followed by a Wayne Gallman 1-yard touchdown plunge, the Tigers were back on top, 24-21.
Alabama tied in on a 33-yard field goal with 10 1/2 minutes to go.
That’s when they used some trickery, recovering an onside kick that sparked the Crimson Tide to another national title.