Both teams were unable to get anything going on their opening drives, combining for just 52 total yards. Alabama broke open the scoring on their second drive, as running back Derrick Henry found a seam, turned on the boosters, and went 50 yards untouched into the end zone to make it 7-0 Crimson Tide with 7:55 left in the 1st.
Clemson responded with a scoring drive of their own to keep the game in contention. Tigers’ Deshaun Watson threw a beautiful pass to the back right of the end zone and it landed safely in the arms of his wide out, Hunter Renfrow, for the 31 yard score to tie up the game.
Alabama missed a 44-yard field goal wide right on their next possession, and the Tigers made them pay. Again Watson found Renfrow, this time on a11 yard TD pass to give Clemson their first lead of the game as time expired in the 1st quarter.
The Tide drew even again quickly in the 2nd quarter after a Deshaun Watson interception on the Tigers’ own 42-yard line. It was again Henry finding his way to the end zone, this time on a 1 yard dive into the inside lane to make it 14 all with 9:35 left to play in the half.
After the quick scores, both defenses stifled and the scoring runs wouldn’t continue as the 1st half concluded. The only shot at points came from Clemson with 9 seconds left in the half as the Tiger lined up for a 44 yard field goal. But the kick missed short, sending us to the half with a tied National Title game for just the 2nd time in the last 16 years.
Bama’s Henry had 128 yards rushing at the half to go along with his two rushing touchdowns to lead the Tide.
All the Tigers first half offense came from the arm and legs of quarterback Deshaun Watson. He tallied 45 rushing yards and 162 passing yards.
Clemson started the 2nd half with a 3 & out on offense, the Tide got to work. On the third play of Alabama’s first possession of the new half, Coker connected with tight end O.J. Howard for a 53-yard touchdown pass to give the Tide a 21-14 lead at 2:17 into the 3rd quarter.
Clemson took their next possession down the field, but they were unable to punch it into the end zone and had to settle for a field goal. Their defense forced Alabama into a 3 & out on their next possession and then Clemson got back to work.
Watson led the Tigers on a 9-play, 60-yard drive to bring Clemson ahead. Wayne Gallman capped off the drive with a 1-yard rushing touchdown. The lead change made it 24-21 Tigers with 4:42 left to play in the 3rd quarter.
Alabama soon tied the game up at 24 in the 4th quarter as Adam Griffith connected on a 33-yard field goal with 10:34 left in regulation. Then ‘Bama head coach Nick Saban made the decision that turned the momentum in their favor.
On the ensuing kickoff the Tide attempted an onside kick and recovered the ball. Then two plays later, Coker once again found O.J. Howard, this time for a 51 yard TD pass to put Alabama up 31-24 with 9:45 left to play as Howard dashed along the sideline.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Marlon,” Saban said in the post-game press conference. “I think these guys see what happens in practice. But the way we line up on kickoffs with squeeze formation and try to corner kick the ball, when a team squeezes the formation like that, we call it pop kick. I thought we had it in the game any time we wanted to do it. I made the decision to do it because the score was 21-21 and we were tired on defense and weren't doing a great job of getting them stopped, and I 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.
“Getting that onside kick, I think, did change the momentum of the game. We scored on the big play two plays later, and then we had a kickoff return for a touchdown, too, which was huge. So special teams was really big for us in this game.”
Clemson fought to get inside the Alabama red zone on the following possession, but they would once again have to settle for a field goal as Huegel connected from 31 yards out. Then the Tigers special teams had a complete melt down.
After a Tiger kickoff, ‘Bama’s Kenyan Drake received the ball at the 5-yard line and found a seam to take it 95 yards to the house, giving Alabama a 38-27 lead with 7:31 left in regulation. It looked as if the game possible had gotten away from Clemson, but there was no quit in the Tigers.
Watson led his Tigers on a methodical 8-play 75-yard drive in 2 minutes and 51 seconds to draw the Tigers back within 5 as he connected with Artavis Scott on a 15 yard TD pass to make it 38-33 with 4:40 left in the game. An unsuccessful two-point conversion left six additional points on the board and a 5-point deficit that remained through the end of regular play.
“Going into this game, I was expecting to win,” said Watson. “I thought we should have won. But like Coach Swinney said, there was a few plays that we didn't really capitalize on, and I missed some throws, we dropped some balls, and just had some missed miscues. Just some little things like that is going to really force yourself in a hole, and it's hard to beat a team like Alabama if you make those mistakes.”
All Clemson needed to do was come up with a defensive stop, get Watson the ball back, and they would have a chance to win the game. Even if they could hold ‘Bama to a field goal and leave a minute on the clock they would have had a chance to tie.
But the Clemson defense was unable to keep Derrick Henry out of the end zone after 3 goal line rushes. Henry got the ball across the plain and gave Alabama a 45-33 lead with 1:02 left in regulation.
Again Watson answered, this time with a 6-play, 68-yard drive that only took 50 seconds off the clock, as he connected with Leggett for a 24-yard TD pass. This offensive blitz made it 45-40 with 12 seconds left on the clock.
If Clemson could get the onside, then maybe, just maybe they could pull off the improbable. But Alabama was able to easily field the onside kick attempt and seal their 4th National Title win in the last 7 years.
[final Clemson close]
What a year. I'm incredibly proud of our team. Obviously we wanted to win the game and we came up a little short, but I think that at least the nation saw tonight why we've been so successful. They saw the heart of our team. This is a team that just has incredible will to win and heart, and I think they gave us everything that they had. They competed. We out- gained them. I thought we physically matched up great with these guys. Really proud of that.
[final Alabama close]
“This team, I really wanted to do the best that I could do for this team, probably as much as any team that I've ever coached, because I really did want them to have the opportunity to win this game. You've got to give Clemson's team a lot of credit. They've got a great football team. Their quarterback is a fabulous player. Their team played hard,” Saban said on his fifth national championship.
“I would like to congratulate them on the great season that they had.”