GLENDALE, Ariz. — There were 183 plays, including kickoffs and punts, in Clemson’s 45-40 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney wishes he could have a few critical ones back.
“Championship football is a game of a few plays, and that’s really what this one came down to,” Swinney said, “just a few plays.”
In fact, Alabama gained 334 of its 473 yards on only eight plays, including receptions of 53, 51 and 63 yards by tight end O.J. Howard. The first two went for touchdowns and the third set up a touchdown run by Derrick Henry for a 45-33 lead. But the biggest play was an onside kick on which Alabama gained a critical possession. The Crimson Tide tried it after tying the score at 24 early in the fourth quarter, and Marlon Humphrey recovered at midfield.
Swinney protested that the Tigers had to have an opportunity to catch the ball but was overruled because it traveled more than 10 yards downfield before Humphrey plucked it out of the air. “Great play by them,” Swinney said. “It was a great kick. Their kid did a great job of going and getting it. It was a huge play in the game because I felt we had all the momentum and were getting ready to get the ball back.
“Then we followed it up with a bust [in pass coverage] for a touchdown. So it was a combination of mistakes.”
The busted coverage involved safety T.J. Green allowing Howard to run straight past him to catch a wide-open 51-yard touchdown pass for a 31-24 lead. It was the second time Green failed to cover Howard on a touchdown play.
“We just had three busts,” Swinney said of Howard’s three long receptions, which included a missed tackle on the 63-yard play.
Those breakdowns negated a brilliant game by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had his team in front 24-21 going into the fourth quarter. Watson had 478 yards of total offense, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns.
“I thought we should have won,” Watson said. “But like coach Swinney said, there was a few plays I didn’t really capitalize on, and I missed some throws and we dropped some balls and just had some miscues. It’s hard to beat a team like Alabama if you make those mistakes.”
The loss ended a streak of 17 consecutive wins by the Tigers, but Swinney said, “At least the nation saw tonight why we’ve been so successful. They saw the heart of our team . . . Where is this thing next year? Is it in Tampa? We’ll see if we can reload and go do it again.”