This National Championship game felt familiar, Clemson slogging early against a world-class Alabama defense before, gradually, luring them into exactly the Tigers’ type of game: a shootout. (The only difference being, maybe, that this year the clock ran out with the score in Clemson’s favor.) The connective tissue between this season and last is strong on both sides, but when people remember this game, they’ll remember Deshaun Watson, a year older, a year more experienced, a year better, as complete a college quarterback as there is, and now that’s he’s again sliced through the best defense in the land, there’s nothing left at this level for him to prove.
“It’s my time to go,” said Watson as he announced he’s leaving for the NFL draft, where he is (according to people whose job it is to predict these things, using measures and metrics arcane to me, and who are often wrong) not the best or even the second-best quarterback prospect in the pool. So maybe this is the peak. What a peak.
“He didn’t lose out on the Heisman,” Dabo Swinney said, “the Heisman lost out on him. They lost out on an opportunity to be attached to this guy forever.”
Watson’s numbers would be comical even if they didn’t come against, you know, Bama. In Clemson’s 35-31 victory, he put up 463 yards of total offense, throwing for three touchdowns and running for one more. (That’s the same number of scores and 15 fewer yards than last season’s title-game loss. He is not a fluke.)
But it was how he came out at halftime that’ll be rightly remembered. Watson led Clemson to touchdowns on four of their final seven drives, and went 23-of-33 for 267 yards with three scoring strikes after the half. It felt like nothing so much as Vince Young 12 years ago, willing his team down the field time after time. Sliding was not an option:
The story, I think, is one of attrition. As good as Alabama’s defense is, they were worn down over the course of a long game that saw Clemson run 99 plays to Bama’s 66. The Tigers possessed the ball for 9:28 longer than their opponents, and gained 31 first downs to the Tide’s 16.
Alabama’s offense just couldn’t stay on the field: They had seven three-and-out drives, and three more in which they gained a single first down before punting. There’s plenty of blame, real and imagined, to be parceled out among an unspectacular offense that switched coordinators a week ago and was overly reliant on big plays, yet its fatal flaw wasn’t in its point total but in its inability to give its defense a breather. Deshaun Watson certainly wasn’t going to ease up.
Watson picked apart a visibly exhausted Bama defense, connecting with four different receivers for at least 90 yards. And in a game where field goals ultimately wouldn’t have cut it, the Tigers did what few teams have been able to do when in sight of Alabama’s end zone. The Crimson Tide entered the game allowing touchdowns on just 38.1 percent of their opponents’ red zone trips. Watson and Clemson went 4-for-4.
None bigger, of course, than that little pick play—which had worked to perfect earlier in the quarter—to former walk-on Hunter Renfrow with one solitary second remaining. “It was something we’ve worked on all year long,” Watson said, “and it was a perfect time to call it.”
The NFL awaits Watson now. And maybe the pessimists are right. Maybe he throws too many interceptions. Maybe his accuracy and timing aren’t good enough for the pros. Maybe he’s not adaptable enough to become the pocket passer NFL offenses think they require. If nothing else, it’ll be a new challenge for a quarterback who just aced college football’s toughest one. And that performance just earned him a significant raise in his draft stock and on his first contract, a contract that won’t come close to fairly compensating him for everything he’s already earned.