GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Clemson’s dream of a perfect season was buried in an avalanche of big plays by Alabama.
A brilliant performance by superb sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson wasn’t quite enough to save the Tigers in a 45-40 loss to the Crimson Tide on Monday night.
Alabama (14-1) won its fourth national championship in seven years and Clemson failed in its bid to become the first team to finish a season 15-0.
But what a thriller it was in the desert.
Watson completed 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 73 in a game that wasn’t decided until Alabama outscored Clemson 24-16 in a frantic final quarter.
“The guy, he’s special,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s got great toughness, great heart, a great mind for the game, and just made some huge plays all the way to the end.”
Clemson was No. 1 every week in the college playoff rankings and had won 17 in a row dating to last season. The Tigers have one national championship — in the 1981 season.
In the end, the Tigers (14-1) just couldn’t keep up with the huge chunks of yards Alabama gained throughout the evening, especially in the final quarter.
“It’s just truly a few plays that make the difference,” Swinney said, “but for us, you know, this is a great experience for our team against a team that represents the best, and (I’m) really happy for coach (Nick) Saban. Four national championships, I mean, that’s an incredible accomplishment.”
Clemson, a 6 ½-point underdog at kickoff, had a big offensive game against the vaunted Alabama defense, outgaining the Crimson Tide 550 yards to 474.
“There’s a lot of pride,” Watson said. “A lot of people didn’t think we were going to be in this game. A lot of people thought Alabama was going to just roll over us. We took it to the very end. … At the end of the day, this team’s on another level and next year we’ll try to get that national championship.”
The Tide overwhelmed the Tigers with one big play after another, whether it be an onside kick or a long kickoff return.
Derrick Henry ran 50 yards for an early touchdown, Kenyan Drake returned a fourth-quarter kickoff 95 yards for a score and Jake Coker connected with big tight end O.J. Howard, the offensive player of the game, on scoring plays of 53 and 51 yards. Coker’s 63-yard pass to Howard set up the 1-yard touchdown run by Henry that finally sealed the victory with 1:07 to play.
Howard caught five passes for 208 yards.
“That’s just poor communication on our back seven,” said Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd, who sacked Coker three times. “But we gave it all we had and my boys up front, we did what we had to do.”
The Clemson defense was hurt by the loss of cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who limped off the field early after being questionable for the game with a hamstring injury sustained in the Tigers’ victory over Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve.
Still, the Tigers led 24-21 after Wayne Gallman’s 1-yard run with 4:48 left in the third quarter capped a nine-play, 60-yard drive.
Alabama tied it with Adam Griffith’s 33-yard field goal with 10:34 to play, then caught the Tigers by surprise with an onside kick. Marlon Humphrey caught the ball in midair.
“That really kind of threw us for a loop right there,” defensive tackle Carlos Watson said.
Two plays later, Coker found Howard on a 51-yard touchdown play and Alabama led for good, 31-24, with 9:45 to play.
Greg Huegel’s field goal cut it to 31-27, but Drake took the kickoff back the distance and Alabama led 38-27.Clemson didn’t fold. Watson’s 11-yard TD pass to Artavis Scott cut the Tide lead to 38-33 with 4:40 to play.
But Coker’s 63-yarder to Howard set up the touchdown that finally put it out of reach.
Clemson scored again with 12 seconds left to make it a five-point difference.
As gamblers know too well, that TD meant the Tigers, while not winning, beat the spread.
“We stand toe to toe with everybody in the country,” Swinney said. “This program doesn’t take a back seat to anybody. We can play with anybody. We can beat anybody, and that’s a fact.”
Well, so far, everybody except Alabama.