Clemson's Trevor Lawrence holds the trophy after the NCAA college...

Clemson's Trevor Lawrence holds the trophy after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. Clemson beat Alabama 44-16. Credit: AP/David J. Phillip

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Perhaps there is no stage too big for Trevor Lawrence. The freshman quarterback led Clemson to a stunning 44-16 rout of defending champion Alabama in the national championship game Monday night at Levi’s Stadium.

Lawrence completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns and led the Tigers (15-0) to the third national championship in school history and their second in three years. Alabama (14-1) entered the game with the chance to complete a dominant decade but instead suffered its worst loss since six-time national champion Nick Saban arrived in 2007. Saban’s previous worst defeat for the Tide was by 14 points.  

Lawrence became the first true freshman starting quarterback to lead his team to a national title since Jamelle Holieway guided Oklahoma past Penn State in the 1986 Orange Bowl.

“You know, that doesn’t mean as much as being able to be a part of this team," Lawrence said. "Really, that’s true if we didn’t go all the way in the national championship.”

“There hasn’t ever been a 15-0 team and I know we’re not supposed to be here," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. "We’re just little old Clemson and I’m not supposed to be here. But we are and I am. How about them Tigers? I’m so proud of our guys, these seniors. We beat Notre Dame and Alabama. We left no doubt and we walk off this field tonight as the first 15-0 team in college football history.”

Sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, whose touchdown pass led the Tide to the overtime victory over Georgia in last season’s final, completed 22 of 34 for 295 yards and two touchdowns. But his two interceptions helped Clemson build a lead that was too big to overcome.

“We had a great season, but five words: Good is not good enough. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish," Tagovailoa said. "We didn’t do the things we needed to do to execute and be successful in this game, and that’s all it is.”

One year after being replaced by Tagovailoa, junior Jalen Hurts entered the game with 11:12 to go. A pair of incomplete passes and a sack would be all the action the former Crimson Tide starter would see, however.

As “Sweet Home Alabama” rang throughout a once-packed Levi’s Stadium with 12 minutes left in the game, the few remaining Crimson Tide fans sang along. Some of the 74,814 fans began shuffling out with No. 1 Alabama down 28 points. Most, however, remained silent.

Within the first five minutes of the fourth consecutive College Football Playoff meeting between Alabama and Clemson, the teams scored a combined 21 points. Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell began the scoring frenzy, returning a 44-yard interception for a touchdown after jumping Tagovailoa’s pass for a 7-0 lead 1:40 into the game. On the sideline, Tagovailoa took ownership of the mistake, patting his chest and saying, “It’s on me.”

Tagovailoa seemed unfazed following the pick-six, finding wide receiver Jerry Jeudy for a 62-yard touchdown down the middle of the field on the following drive. Alabama was able to move the ball, outgaining Clemson 266-224 at halftime. But the Tide kept making mistakes, and Clemson kept taking advantage.

Looking for Jeudy on another deep pass in the second quarter, Tagovailoa threw his second interception, tying a career high. His overthrow landed in the arms of cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who returned it to midfield.

“I won’t say that that’s the best game I played but I know I came to play," Mullen said. "I mean, the whole defense came to play, the whole team, all phases.”

After throwing incompletions on his first three passes, Lawrence settled down. He answered back with a 75-yard drive that included a 62-yard connection with a wide-open Tee Higgins.

Alabama took a temporary 16-14 lead before Clemson closed out the half by scoring 17 unanswered points against a defense that had allowed 17 points or fewer eight times this season. Clemson’s 31 first-half points equaled the most Alabama had given up in the Saban era.

Coming out of halftime, Alabama marched the ball 49 yards down the field. But when holder Mac Jones took off on a fake field-goal attempt from the Clemson 22, he was stuffed by tackle Nyles Pinckney. Three years ago, Saban’s bold decision to attempt an onside kick became a key element in Alabama’s championship victory over the Tigers.

Moments later, Lawrence found freshman receiver Justyn Ross, who was wide open after cornerback Saivion Smith went down on the play with an apparent left-leg injury. The 74-yard touchdown pass gave Clemson a commanding 37-16 lead. Ross was a favorite downfield target for Lawrence, as the pair averaged more than 25 yards per connection through three quarters.

“We didn’t finish drives in the red zone [or] we could have got right back in the game," Saban said. "We had the ball down there three times and didn’t score a point, didn’t score a point. We had a fake field goal, went for it on fourth down twice, had the ball on the 1-yard line.”

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