On most plays during the national championship game, it seemed that the outcome favored Clemson. Their defensive line sacked Alabama QB Jake Coker five times and harried him endlessly, while Clemson QB Deshaun Watson frequently had all day to stand in the pocket. Besides a 50-yard TD scamper (we’ll come back to it), Alabama’s Heisman-winning RB Derrick Henry averaged just 3.1 yards on 35 carries: he was mostly bottled up. When Clemson failed to convert, punter Andy Teasdall repeatedly pinned Alabama back with poor field position.
So how did Alabama win 45-40 despite totaling 77 fewer yards, 14 fewer first downs, losing the battle of the line of scrimmage, and helping make Watson look like the surefire first pick of the 2017 NFL Draft? By ripping off six absolutely huge plays, most of them because Clemson was busier shooting their own dicks off than playing smart football.
It started early. On third-and-1 from the 5o-yard-line in the first quarter, Clemson loaded nine in the box only to see Henry blow right by all nine in about two seconds for the game’s first TD. It was a preview of things to come.
The biggest beneficiary of Clemson’s screw-ups was Alabama TE O.J. Howard, who I swear to god was invisible to Clemson’s secondary. Early in the third quarter he got free for a 53-yard TD because of a miscommunication between Clemson’s cornerback and safety, leaving a wide open sideline for Howard to run down.
In the fourth quarter, almost the exact same thing happened again, this time resulting in a 51-yard TD for Howard.
After a field goal a third of the way through the fourth quarter, Alabama kicked off to Clemson, tied 24-24. Nick Saban—who surely has the biggest balls in college football—opted for a surprise onside kick. Clemson’s hands team somehow had nobody outside of the hashmarks, and a perfect Phil Mickelson-esque flop shot got Alabama the ball. Two plays later they scored on Howard’s aforementioned second TD.
Clemson marched down the field for a quick field goal, and were by no means out of the game. But another special teams failure—this time by the coverage team—allowed Alabama’s Kenyan Drake to return the kickoff 95 yards to the house for a diving TD.
After another quick Clemson score, this time a touchdown, Alabama took over up five, with 4:40 remaining. Clemson really needed a stop, or at worse to give up only a field goal to keep it a one score ball game. Instead, on a simple pass to, you guessed it, O.J. Howard, in the flat they gave up a 63-yard reception, all the way down to their own 14. Six plays later Henry punched it in.
Clemson sophomore QB Deshaun Watson was absolutely electric all game, going 30 of 47 for 405 yards and four TDs, tossing a number of pinpoint difficult throws and keeping plays alive with his feet. Clemson’s offense scored 40 points, the second most points the number three Alabama defense gave up all season. It really should’ve been enough to win.
But Clemson’s secondary looked like they’d never played together before, and Alabama’s special teams pulled off the two biggest plays of the game. Clemson made the most plays, but Alabama made the biggest.
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