How did the Clemson Tigers win their second-ever national championship Monday night? Well, they scored 35 points while holding Alabama to 31.
If only it were that simple.
The third installment of the College Football Playoff National Championship was an absolute nail-biter, with the two teams trading blows throughout the fourth quarter until Clemson landed the knockout punch with just one second left on the clock.
Deshaun Watson’s lob to Hunter Renfrow just before time expired will undoubtedly go down in college football history as one of the most memorable plays in a championship game. But in the 59 minutes, 58 seconds before that touchdown, there were many plays that could have prevented the Tigers from ever getting to that point had they just gone a little differently.
They might not make highlight reels or go on banners to be proudly displayed throughout South Carolina, but here are some moments that gave Clemson the opportunity to celebrate.
3:34, 1Q: Hentges’ hold
Throughout the first quarter and well into the second, it looked like Clemson was simply out of its league against the unbeaten Crimson Tide. The offense was doing nothing, the defense couldn’t stop the run, and things were not looking good. With Alabama already up a touchdown and on the ninth play of a drive that started at its own 16, Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts ran for a first down into Clemson territory. However, a holding call on Hale Hentges moved it back 10 yards, and an incomplete pass subsequently ended the drive. It sure felt like Alabama was going to take major control early, so getting out of the first quarter down one score instead of two was big for Clemson’s psyche.
7:53, 2Q: Wilkins knocks one down
Christian Wilkins at it again. Another pass deflection. pic.twitter.com/jmCb5XAZyM
— Kevin Dillon (@ByKevinDillon) January 10, 2017
Alabama did eventually score that second touchdown to go up 14-0 and had the ball near midfield following a poor Clemson punt. On third-and-9, Hurts had target Gehrig Dieter cutting across the middle for what looked like a first-down reception. However, Clemson lineman Christian Wilkins came up with a big play by getting a hand on the pass and sending it into no-man’s land to bring Alabama’s punt team back out. Seven plays later, Clemson got on the board, with a big help from one play in particular.
7:17, 2Q: Cain’s big gain
Deshaun Watson told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt that turning point was 43-yard pass to Deon Cain midway through 2nd quarter. Got confidence going
— Saturday Down South (@SDS) January 10, 2017
The Tigers had almost the whole field to go after starting the drive at their own 13. Two plays later, they were well into Alabama territory thanks to the quick feet of Deon Cain. The receiver caught a screen pass and was off to the races, using a couple of nice jukes to get 43 yards downfield. Jordan Leggett then made a big third-down catch, and Watson ran in the touchdown two plays later.
0:54, 2Q: Clemson moves the chains
Renfrow’s name will be forever synonymous with his game-winning grab, but he was huge all game long. An unheralded catch came along the sideline with less than a minute left. Clemson was pinned inside its own 10-yard line on third down and the Tide still had two timeouts. If the Tigers didn’t convert, Alabama would likely take over near midfield with at least one timeout remaining. Instead, Watson connected with Renfrow along the sideline for the 19-yard completion and a first down. When Clemson did eventually punt, the Tide were at their own 34 with less than 20 seconds left and harmlessly let the clock run out to keep the score 14-7 at the half.
13:54, 3Q: Renfrow saves a TD
IF, and it’s a big IF, IF Clemson comes back to win, Renfrow’s effort on the fumble will register as a huge play.
— Tom Waddle (@TWaddle87) January 10, 2017
Renfrow’s contributions were not limited to the receiving game. On Clemson’s opening drive of the second half, running back Wayne Gallman coughed up the ball for Clemson’s third lost fumble. Ryan Anderson scooped the ball up and ran with nothing but open field in front of him, but Renfrow hustled back and knocked the big linebacker down. Alabama eventually got a field goal out of it, but Renfrow’s tackle saved four points — the exact margin the Tigers ended up winning by.
8:13, 3Q: Scott shanks one
JK Scott averaging 47.4 yards per punt, but he thins one 30 yards this time. Clemson in business at the Bama 42. #CFP
— Scott Rabalais (@RabalaisAdv) January 10, 2017
Alabama punter JK Scott was absolutely phenomenal throughout the championship game, showing off the powerful leg and pinning ability that made him a Ray Guy Award finalist. But he did make one mistake, and that was a 30-yard blunder that allowed Clemson to start its drive in Alabama territory. The Tigers did not waste any time, only needing four plays to score their second touchdown on a 24-yard Renfrow grab and make it a three-point game at 17-14.
2:54, 3Q: Pass interference shifts momentum
Jason Vinlove | USA TODAY Sports Images
After the Tigers lost last year’s national championship in large part due to two long receptions by Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, it had to be Dabo Swinney’s worst nightmare realized when some blown coverage allowed Howard to waltz in for a 68-yard score and a 24-14 lead. But one play later, Clemson got some momentum back with a pass interference call on Marlon Humphrey on a deep ball along the sideline. That got the Tigers near midfield and Watson did the rest, going 5-of-6 for 53 yards on the rest of the drive to make it a three-point game once again.
13:01, 4Q: Howard “intercepts” Hurts
After consecutive scoring drives for each team, it looked like the points might really come pouring in down the stretch (which they eventually did). Right after Clemson’s touchdown, Alabama had the ball at midfield but faced third down. Hurts ran to his left and then dumped it a few yards ahead for running back Damien Harris, who had a lot of open field in front of him. The problem was, the pass never got to Harris because Howard made an impressive point-blank grab thinking the pass was intended for him. The speed difference between the two is obvious, and Howard was tripped up well short of the first down to give Clemson a key stop.
5:32, 4Q: Half the field in one play
Mike Williams: The WR1 in the 2017 NFL Draft pic.twitter.com/DPdAZccEUz
— 2017 NFL Draft (@DraftRT) January 10, 2017
With the score still 24-21 Alabama, it was becoming clear that Clemson was going to need some heroics. With the ball at the Tigers’ own 43, Watson threw one up for grabs to receiver Mike Williams, who made an absolutely amazing leaping catch for 26 yards. If that wasn’t enough, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne gifted Clemson another 15 yards with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Just like that, Clemson was in the red zone, Watson ran to the 1, and Gallman dove in for the Tigers’ first lead with 4:38 to go.
1:56, 4Q: Williams hauls in another
Mike Williams Draft Stock pic.twitter.com/8CnR4wWkwC
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 10, 2017
Of course, as we know, that lead was short-lived. Alabama converted on fourth-and-1, a trick play got 24 yards, and Hurts scrambled 30 yards for the lead with just over two minutes remaining. It was do-or-die time for Clemson, so Watson tried his star receiver again. And, for the second drive in a row, Williams leapt high, turning in mid-air, and pulled in a reception, this time for 24 yards. That put Clemson on the verge of field-goal range, but Watson had no interest in overtime.
0:28, 4Q: Renfrow converts once again
Some questionable time management on Swinney’s part allowed the clock to get under 30 seconds despite Clemson holding two timeouts. The Tigers were in range for a long field goal if the third-down play was unsuccessful, but instead Watson found Renfrow open across the middle for a first down. That kept the drive going, and at the very least took a lot of pressure off kicker Greg Huegel, who would’ve had to attempt a 49-yarder with the pressure of the world on him.
0:19, 4Q: Leggett’s amazing grab
Jordan Leggett extends and makes the grab pic.twitter.com/x2EhApCsfW
— ⓂarcusD2.0 (@_MarcusD2_) January 10, 2017
Clemson still had its two timeouts, but time was running short and the Tigers had another 26 yards to go. Watson felt some pressure and threw a wobbly pass behind the intended target Leggett. But the tight end adjusted and stretched for an outstanding catch, bringing his team within nine yards of glory.
0:09, 4Q: Penalty puts Clemson on the doorstep
With those nine yards still to go, Watson figured he’d go back to the well one more time and throw a jump ball for Williams in the end zone. Williams never got in the air this time, though, because Alabama’s Anthony Averett gave him a shove and sent him to the ground. Pass interference was called, Clemson went down to the 2-yard line with six seconds left, and…well you know the rest.