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Tigers’ Title Dreams Come Up Short




They “brought their own guts,” as their head coach likes to say, but Clemson University’s national championship dreams came up just short.

Still, Clemson and Alabama staged a college football classic before a sold-out University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona – fighting down to the wire for the second trophy of the NCAA Division I-A playoff era.

Head coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers – seeking to become the first 15-0 team in major college football history – were undone by their own special teams’ miscues in the fourth quarter of this thrilling national title tilt.  As a result, the program’s 17-game winning streak came to an end – as did its streak of 51 straight victories when taking a lead into the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile Alabama (14-1, 7-1 SEC) claimed its fourth national championship in seven years under head coach Nick Saban – who had to roll the dice to pull out this win. And who then cracked a rare sideline smile when his big gamble paid off …

Clemson (14-1, 8-0 ACC) appeared to be en route to its second national championship – leading the Crimson Tide 24-21 as the third stanza drew to a close.  Alabama quarterback Jake Coker was clearly rattled by the Tigers’ punishing pass rush – and the Tide’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry had been effectively bottled up during the second half by Clemson’s stultifying rushing defense.

On its previous three drives, Alabama’s offense had managed just 26 yards.

But facing a critical third-and-eleven with 11:35 left to play from its own 44-yard-line, Coker – under heavy pressure – heaved up a prayer down the right sideline.  The ball was miraculously caught by a twisting, turning ArDarius Stewart – a thirty-eight yard reception that gave coordinator Lane Kiffin‘s squad the yardage it needed to kick a game-tying field goal.

What happened next will haunt Tiger fans for years to come …

Recognizing a vulnerability in the Tigers’ kickoff return coverage, Alabama called for an onside kick – one that was perfectly executed by placekicker Adam Griffith.  Two plays later, the much-maligned Coker hit tight end O.J. Howard for a go-ahead 51-yard scoring strike.

Here’s the sequence …

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“The onside kick was huge,” Saban said after the game.  “It was a great kick by Griff. I think that changed the momentum of the game.”

Clemson gathered its composure and answered the Tide touchdown with a field goal drive – cutting the Alabama margin to 31-27 – but then special teams’ disaster struck again for the Tigers.  Senior running back Kenyon Drake took the ensuing kickoff and ran it back ninety-six yards for a touchdown – covering the last five years with a diving leap past Tigers’ safety T.J. Green.

Take a look …

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Now trailing 38-27, Clemson showed its resolve once again.  Quarterback Deshaun Watson – who carried his team on his shoulders all night – led the Tigers down the field on an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Artavis Scott.

Watson came up two yards short on the two-point conversion attempt, but his heroics cut the lead to 38-33 with 4:40 remaining.

Now all Clemson needed was a stop …

Unfortunately for Tiger fans, they didn’t get it.  Instead, Coker hit Scott for a 63-yard strike that set up the Crimson Tide with a first down at the Clemson fourteen-yard line.  Three plays later Coker – not known for his mobility – picked up a gutsy first down on the ground (enabling Kiffen’s offense to run precious seconds off of the clock).  With just over a minute left Henry scored his third touchdown of the night to give Alabama a 45-33 advantage.

Still refusing to quit, Watson again marched Clemson down the field for another answering touchdown – but by the time the Tigers struck pay dirt only twelve seconds remained on the clock.  Once Clemson’s own onside kick attempt sailed out of bounds – the celebration was on in Tuscaloosa.

Watson played a spectacular game – completing 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.  He also ran for 73 yards on 20 carries.  Coker completed 16 of 25 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns.  His top target?   Howard, who caught five passes for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns.

Henry finished with 158 yards on 36 carries – becoming the first running back in SEC history to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark in a season.