GLENDALE, Ariz. — For three quarters Monday night, the College Football Playoff championship game was the Deshaun Watson show as he ran wild against Alabama’s previously unrelenting defense to give the Tigers a seven-point lead heading to the final quarter. But when the Crimson Tide had to have it, they manufactured 28 fourth-quarter points to pull out a 45-40 victory that gave coach Nick Saban his fifth national title and fourth in the past seven seasons for the dynasty he has built in Tuscaloosa.
No. 1 Clemson (14-1) took a 24-21 lead through three quarters, but it all came unraveled in the final period. Alabama tied the score at 24 on a 33-yard field goal by Adam Griffith and then tried a daring onside kick that was recovered at midfield by the Tide’s Marlon Humphrey. That shifted the momentum and set up a 51-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Coker to wide-open tight end O.J. Howard for a 31-24 lead.
The Tigers, who saw their winning streak end at 17 games, responded with a 31-yard field goal by Greg Huegel, but a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Alabama’s Kenyan Drake for a 38-27 lead with 7:31 remaining left the Tigers with a nearly impossible uphill climb.
Saban, who won his first national title at LSU, tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant as the all-time leader with five national titles, but he deflected the attention to his players, thanking them for their effort in rebounding from an early-season loss to Ole Miss to reach the pinnacle.
“How do you respond to a loss?” Saban said. “You have to have character and you have to respond to adversity and do the things we ask. Everyone did it, and that’s why we’re here. It wasn’t our best, but we did what we had to do.”
Mindful of his image as an eternal grouch, Saban grinned widely and said, “I’m smiling!”
You can believe Saban wasn’t smiling while Watson was in the process of deconstructing his vaunted defense. He had a career-high 478 yards of total offense, completing 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 73 yards on 20 carries. But Tigers running back Wayne Gallman was held to 45 yards on 14 carries.
Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry had a brilliant game for Alabama, rushing for 158 yards on 36 carries and scoring three touchdowns, including a 50-yard run for an early 7-0 lead. But it was the unheralded Coker who really rose to the occasion, completing 16 of 25 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns. Howard was the X factor with five receptions for 208 yards and two TDs.
The halftime score was 14-14 after Watson threw TD passes of 31 and 11 yards to Hunter Renfrow and Henry added a 1-yard TD to his early 50-yarder.
Alabama took a 21-14 lead in the third quarter when Howard was left alone by Clemson safety T.J. Green for a 53-yard touchdown pass. That was a foreshadowing of a similar mistake Green would make later, but first Watson led the Tigers to a 24-21 lead on a 37-yard field goal by Huegel and a 1-yard run by Gallman.
But in the wild fourth period, Alabama’s Griffith tied the score at 24 with his field goal and then hit a short pop-up kickoff that Humphrey fielded cleanly at midfield. Two plays later, Howard again ran straight past Green to catch a 51-yard pass from Coker that put the Crimson Tide ahead for good at 31-24.
Saban said he thought the onside kick would be there if Alabama needed it, and after watching Watson, he knew it was time to gamble. “I felt if we didn’t do something to take a chance on changing the momentum of the game, we might lose,” Saban said. “It worked.”
Clemson drove for a field goal by Huegel to pull within four, but Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return broke the game open at 38-27. Watson never gave up, throwing a 15-yard scoring pass to Artavis Scott with 4:40 left, but another 63-yard pass to Howard set up Henry’s final 1-yard TD for a 45-33 lead with 1:07 remaining. Watson threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett with 12 seconds left.
It was a win born more out of desperation than dominance, and Saban acknowledged that.
“We didn’t always play pretty,” he said. “But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, that was as good as it gets. I’ve never been prouder of any group of guys in my life.”