In any sport, in any competition, making history never comes easy. History is inexorable. History is eternal. And achieving historic moments is always met with stiff resistance.
In this case, the desired historic achievement was a national championship. It would be historic for Alabama, who were in pursuit of an unprecedented four national titles in seven years. It would be historic for Clemson, who were searching for their second title in school history and their first since 1981.
The obstacles in their way were formidable. Clemson had to navigate their way through an Alabama defense that was probably the most dominant in the country, even if they were not the best statistically. Clemson also had to find a way to slow down Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry.
Alabama, meanwhile, had to find a way to score on the Clemson defense, who has been strong all season in their own right. The Alabama defense would have to find a way to stop Deshaun Watson and an impressive Clemson receiving squad.
The game lived up to every possible billing and then some. It was a back-and-forth contest with huge plays being made on each side. It looked from the very beginning like the team that made the biggest play late would win.
The game began with both teams achieving their goals on offense. The defenses were fired up and made some big plays, but were not quite consistent enough to be effective. Alabama began the scoring with a 59-yard touchdown run by Henry. The Clemson defense crashed down on 3rd and short and the Alabama offensive line blocked them so well that no one had a chance to get Henry.
Clemson answered and answered well, though, with Deshaun Watson throwing perfect balls for two straight drives, leading to two touchdown catches by Hunter Renfroe. When it looked like Clemson had all the momentum and was about to start a third drive, Eddie Jackson intercepted a Watson throw and brought the momentum swinging the other way. Alabama responded with a touchdown and we were back to square one, with a 14-14 stalemate coming into halftime.
The game was a matchup of styles–at least, it played out that way. Clemson worked out drives by moving the ball methodically up the field. They played fast, but most of their yardage came in short bursts. Alabama, on the other hand, got most of their production out of huge plays. The Tide scored two touchdowns of over 50 yards.
The teams were more settled in the second half, with both teams hitting hard. Clemson was still moving the ball better than Alabama, but the Tide showed better big play ability all game. We entered the fourth quarter and it was still anybody’s game.
In the end, historic victories take historic moments. This game was one that was going to take one big play in a big moment to cement it. Clemson had the slight advantage with a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, but someone had to step up. Alabama’s defense stopped Clemson after the Tigers had good field position. Clemson did a good job containing Derrick Henry. Alabama got a huge throw to ArDarius Stewart, but Clemson did an excellent job to respond to keep the Tide to a field goal. This game was going to hinge on someone stepping up late in a huge situation and everyone knew it.
Alabama looked like they brought their huge play with just over ten minutes left, when Nick Saban called for a perfectly-executed onside kick. Two plays after the recovery, a busted coverage by Clemson led to O.J. Howard’s second touchdown catch of over 50 yards on the game.
Clemson wasn’t about to let Alabama reestablish their dynasty without a fight. Alabama’s two-year title gap was the longest since the 2009 season started and Clemson wanted to extend that streak to a third season. They responded to Alabama’s touchdown with two huge plays but the drive stalled there. A field goal left Alabama with a four-point lead with just under eight minutes to play in the game.
Alabama wasted no time in slamming the door, though. The ensuing kickoff was returned for a touchdown and Alabama’s lead was extended to 11.
Clemson showed they would never give up without a fight. If Alabama was to make history, they would have to play to the final second. Wayne Gallman broke tackles and moved Clemson deep into Alabama territory, leading to a touchdown (the two-point conversion attempt failed). Alabama would need to run five minutes off the clock or to get one last defensive stop to win the game.
Clemson was still doing an excellent job stopping Derrick Henry, but O.J. Howard got open and ran free one last time. With his third play of over 50 yards on the day, Howard moved the ball deep into Clemson territory and Alabama was able to run a lot of time off the clock. A Derrick Henry touchdown with just over a minute left erased all doubt.
No simple recap can do justice to the intensity of this game. Both teams brought intensity with every play and every hit. There were mistakes, certainly–and none bigger than Clemson’s defensive errors–but both teams came up with the goods when it counted. Alabama just came up with a little more when it counted most.
This win, more than any other, will move Nick Saban up a step in Alabama legend status. What he has done in Tuscaloosa is unparalleled. He has been a hero since his first championship. He has been a legend since his second. But his legend status was always short of being on the same level as Paul “Bear” Bryant. Now, though, with four titles in seven years at Alabama–and with five national titles overall–now Nick Saban is finally in the same rarified air as the Bear. Maybe he isn’t at that status yet; but he is certainly very close now.