TAMPA, Fla. — The lead changed hands three times in the final five minutes, but Clemson got the last shot.
Deshaun Watson threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow with one second left as the Tigers upset defending champion Alabama, 35-31, and earned their first national championship in 35 years on Monday night.
“It was calm,” said Watson, who finished 36-for-56 for 420 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a TD. “No one over there panicked. I walked up to my offensive line, my receivers, and I said, ‘Let’s be great.’ ’’
The Tigers avenged a 45-40 loss to Alabama in last year’s championship game.
“You can’t make this up. Only God can do this,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “God brought me to Clemson eight years ago and our goal was to put Clemson back on top, do it the right way, do it with their hearts, not their talent. I can’t say enough about our players.”
Clemson (14-1) took a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left, with Wayne Gallman diving in from a yard to cap an 88-yard drive. Watson set up Gallman’s touchdown with throws of 17 and 26 yards and a 15-yard run to the 1.
Alabama (14-1) went up 31-28 with 2:01 left on freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts’ 30-yard run.
Then Watson answered.
“I couldn’t have drawn up this scenario,” he said. “It is a blessing that we won this game tonight. I feel fortunate to have been part of this team.”
NFL-bound Mike Williams, widely expected to be the first receiver selected in the draft, made two leaping catches in the final two touchdown drives. He had a 26-yarder in front of Marlon Humphrey and a 24-yarder against Anthony Averett on the final drive. He also drew a pass- interference penalty in the final seconds that set up Renfrow’s go-ahead TD catch.
“I think they made some great throws and catches,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “And the last couple drives when they had the ball, we just didn’t make a play when we needed to. We needed to get a sack. We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made the plays and we didn’t.”
The game lasted 4 hours, 8 minutes, making it the longest title game since the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. The previous longest championship game of the BCS/CFP era was 3 hours, 59 minutes, when Texas beat Southern California, 41-38, in 2005.
“I have to say that I’m extremely proud of our team for what they were able to accomplish this entire season,’’ Saban said. “I don’t think one game defines who you are, you know, as a person, as a competitor or as a team, and certainly not define what this group of young men was able to accomplish this year.”
Down 24-14 to start the fourth quarter, Clemson moved within three on a 4-yard TD pass from Watson to Williams.
Alabama had gone up 24-14 on a 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard. Howard caught touchdown passes of 53 and 51 yards in a 208-yard game against Clemson in last year’s championship game.
Clemson cut Alabama’s lead to 17-14 midway through the third quarter on Watson’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Renfrow.
Alabama jumped ahead 14-0 on touchdown runs of 25 and 37 yards by Bo Scarbrough, whose 68-yard score had put Washington away in the Crimson Tide’s semifinal victory.