The third installment of the College Football Playoff National Championship was an absolute nail-biter, with Clemson and Alabama 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 was the capper on a 35-31 win. But in the 59 minutes, 59 seconds before that touchdown, many plays could have prevented the Tigers from getting to that point had they just gone a little differently.
Here are some moments that gave Clemson the opportunity to celebrate:
HENTGES' HOLD (3:34, first quarter)
Throughout the first quarter and well into the second, the Clemson offense was doing nothing and the defense couldn’t stop the run. 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. But a holding call on Hale Hentges moved the Tide back 10 yards, and an incomplete pass ended the drive. Getting out of the first quarter down one score instead of two was big for Clemson’s psyche.
WILKINS SPIKES ONE (7:53, second quarter)
Christian Wilkins at it again. Another pass deflection. pic.twitter.com/jmCb5XAZyM— Kevin Dillon (@ByKevinDillon) January 10, 2017
Alabama scored a 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 sure first down. But Clemson lineman Christian Wilkins got a hand on the pass to bring Alabama’s punt team back out. Seven plays later, Clemson got on the board.
CAIN'S BIG GAIN (7:17, second quarter)
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 started the next 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 used a couple nice jukes to go for 43 yards. Jordan Leggett made a big third-down catch, and Watson ran for a touchdown two plays later.
MOVING THE CHAINS (0:54, second quarter)
Renfrow will be remembered for his game-winning grab, but he was huge all game long. With less than a minute left until the half, Clemson was pinned inside its own 10-yard line on third down. Alabama still had two timeouts. If the Tigers didn’t convert, Alabama would likely take over near midfield with at least one timeout remaining. Watson connected with Renfrow along the sideline for a 19-yard completion and a first down. The Tigers finally had to punt, but with the Tide at their own 34 with less than 20 seconds left, Clemson was able to keep the score 14-7 at the half.
RENFROW SAVES A TD (13:54, third quarter)
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
On Clemson's opening drive of the second half, running back Wayne Gallman coughed up the ball for Clemson's second lost fumble. Alabama's Ryan Anderson scooped up the ball in the open field, 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 margin of the final score.
SCOTT SHANKS ONE (8:13, third quarter)
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 game, showing off the powerful leg and pinning ability that made him a Ray Guy Award finalist. But he made one mistake, a 30-yard blunder that allowed Clemson to start a drive in Alabama territory. The Tigers needed only four plays to score their second touchdown on a 24-yard Renfrow grab, making it 17-14.
PASS INTERFERENCE SHIFTS MOMENTUM (2:54, third quarter)The Tigers lost last year’s title game in part due to two long receptions by Alabama tight end O.J. Howard. So it had to be Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s worst nightmare when his overanxious defense allowed Howard to waltz in for a 68-yard score and a 24-14 lead. But a 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 again.
HOWARD'S "INTERCEPTION" (13:01, fourth quarter)
After each team scored again, it looked like points might really come pouring down in the stretch (which they eventually did). Right after Clemson’s touchdown, Alabama faced a third down with the ball at midfield. Hurts ran to his left and dumped a pass a few yards ahead for running back Damien Harris. The problem was, the pass never got to Harris. Howard made an impressive point-blank grab thinking the pass was intended for him. Howard was tripped up well short of the first down to give Clemson a key stop.
HALF THE FIELD, ONE PLAY (5:32, fourth quarter)
Mike Williams: The WR1 in the 2017 NFL Draft pic.twitter.com/DPdAZccEUz— 2017 NFL Draft (@DraftRT) January 10, 2017
At 24-21 Alabama, Clemson was going to need some heroics. With the ball at the Tigers’ 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.
WILLIAMS GRABS ANOTHER (1:56, fourth quarter)
Mike Williams Draft Stock pic.twitter.com/8CnR4wWkwC— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 10, 2017
That lead was short-lived. Alabama converted on fourth-and-1, a trick play got 24 yards, and Hurts scrambled 30 yards up the middle 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, for a 24-yard catch. That put Clemson in field-goal range, but Watson had no interest in overtime.
RENFROW, AGAIN (0:28, fourth quarter)
With the clock ticking down -- Swinney was not calling time out, even though he had two of them -- the Tigers were in range for a long field goal. But Watson found Renfrow open across the middle on third down for another first down. That kept the drive going and took a lot of pressure off kicker Greg Huegel, who would’ve had to attempt a 49-yarder to tie the score.
LEGGETT'S BIG GRAB (0:19, fourth quarter)
Jordan Leggett extends and makes the grab pic.twitter.com/x2EhApCsfW— ⓂarcusD2.0 (@_MarcusD2_) January 10, 2017
Clemson still had its two timeouts and the Tigers had another 26 yards to go, but they kept playing. Watson took the snap, felt some pressure and threw a wobbly pass behind intended target Leggett. The tight end adjusted and brought it in, bringing his team within nine yards of a win.
PENALTY PUTS CLEMSON IN POSITION (0:09, fourth quarter)
Watson put up another jump ball for Williams in the end zone, but Williams never got in the air; Alabama’s Anthony Averett gave him a shove and sent him to the ground. The pass interference call put Clemson on the 2-yard line with six seconds left.
Watson and Renfrow took it from there.