It’s not right to call any part of Alabama’s 45-40 victory in last night’s national championship game fluky, but there’s no denying that they were carried to the win by precisely the kind of wild, momentum-swinging plays that we usually see buoying an underdog’s chances. ‘Bama was of course the favorite coming into the game, but there were large swaths in which the Tide had the look of an upstart, and that’s because of what Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was doing to them.
With four touchdowns, 405 passing yards, and 73 rushing yards, Watson broke Vince Young’s record for total yards in a title game. Those numbers look absurd in any context, and then you remember that Watson did this against the Alabama Death Star. The Tide came into the game with the second-stingiest defense in the country, allowing just 15 points and 200 passing yards per game. Alabama surrendered about 13 first downs per game this season, but Watson marched his team to 31 last night, six of them coming on third down.
Watson wasn’t just busting up an all-world defense, he was exerting complete control over the game. He escaped blitzes, rifled perfect throws all over the field, and never once wavered, despite the defense and special teams unit repeatedly shooting their own dicks off. Watson was in the zone, and it showed on almost every throw he made:
Don’t forget that he made an even better throw to Germone Hopper in the second quarter, which Hopper just couldn’t hang on to.
There was a madcap quality to last night’s game, but only in the moments when Watson wasn’t on the field. He responded to Alabama’s game-changing onside kick and seizure of the lead with a nerve-calming drive to set up a field goal. When the Tide once again seemed to break the game open with a 95-yard return touchdown, Watson replied with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive of his own. The waves were crashing down on Watson, and he just kept sailing right over them.
It’s fitting, then, that Watson ended the game with one last, ultimately meaningless touchdown—a perfect 24-yard strike to Jordan Leggett with 12 seconds remaining. You almost got the sense that if the game had gone on for just a little bit longer, Watson’s individual brilliance would have eventually overcome whatever dark magic Nick Saban was conjuring on the sideline. Those spells were enough to defeat Clemson, but the only thing that could stop Deshaun Watson was time.