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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Clemson’s Mike Williams celebrates his touchdown catch with teammate Jordan Leggett during the second half of the college football playoff championship game against Alabama on Monday in Tampa, Fla. Clemson scored the game-winning touchdown with a second remaining to win the title.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 8:19 am

Tigers get their revenge

Staff, news services

TAMPA, Fla. — College football’s first national championship rematch was a fitting sequel to the original, with an unusual twist at the end.

Deshaun Watson and Clemson dethroned the champs and became the first team to beat Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty in a national title game, taking down the top-ranked Crimson Tide 35-31 Monday night in the College Football Playoff.

Watson found Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard touchdown pass with a second remaining to give the Tigers their first national championship since 1981. A year after Alabama won its fourth title under Saban with a 45-40 classic in Arizona, Clemson closed the deal and denied the Tide an unprecedented fifth championship in eight seasons.

The lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter, but Watson got the ball last. Likely playing in his final college game, the junior quarterback threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns.

Coach Dabo Swinney had built an elite program at Clemson that was missing only one thing, and now the Tigers can check that box, too.

The Tigers took a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter when Wayne Gallman surged in from a yard out.

The Tide’s offense, which had gone dormant for most of the second half, came to life with the help of a sweet call from newly promoted offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Receiver ArDarius Stewart took a backward pass from Jalen Hurts and fired a strike to O.J. Howard for 24 yards.

On the next play, Hurts broke free from a collapsing pocket and weaved his way through defenders for a 30-yard touchdown run to make it 31-28 with 2:07 left.

More than enough time for Watson, who hooked up with Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett for great catches and big gains to get to first-and-goal.

A pass interference on Alabama made it first-and-goal at the 2 with six seconds left. Time for one more play to avoid a tying kick and potential overtime.

Renfrow slipped away from the defense at the goal line and was alone for an easy toss.

It was the walk-on receiver’s second TD catch of the night, adding to the two he had last season against Alabama.

When it ended Clemson’s 315-pound defensive lineman Christian Wilkins did a cartwheel and Ben Boulware, one of the toughest linebackers in the country, was in tears.

The Tigers had snapped Alabama’s 26-game winning streak and beaten a No. 1 team for the first time ever.

Alabama carried a 14-7 lead into intermission, the first half made tight by an 8-yard touchdown run from Watson with 6:09 to go. The quarterback’s nimble navigation of the left sideline capped Clemson’s seven-play, 87-yard drive.

The Tigers’ pass defense held up its end early, holding Hurts to 40 yards through the air in the first half with a 15-yarder to Calvin Ridley being the freshman’s longest completion. Hurts hit on only 7 of 16 throws before the break.

Yet the Crimson Tide had appeared to seize a firm grip on the proceedings with 10:42 remaining in the second quarter, when Bo Scarbrough broke two tackles on the left side and scampered for a 37-yard touchdown run that made it 14-0.

The first strategic pivot point came when Swinney used a timeout on his team’s first series prior to a fourth-and-1 play, eventually opting to call a toss to Wayne Gallman, who was stopped short.

The Crimson Tide, taking over at their 41-yard line, needed only three plays to cover the short field and went up 7-0 on Scarbrough’s 25-yard touchdown run.

By the end of the first quarter, when it was still 7-0, Clemson had run 18 plays and gained only 46 yards, including 2.7 per rush.