NEW ORLEANS — The third act of the Alabama vs. Clemson Part series has arrived, and we can only hope Monday night’s College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl (Monday, 8:45 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN App) is as scintillating as the first two.
But, first, through the eyes of players and coaches who were there, we relive the iconic moments, memories and musings from a pair of college football classics that left us thirsting for more.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson put on a show for the ages with 405 passing yards and four touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough as Alabama held off the Tigers for what was Nick Saban’s fourth national championship in the past seven years.
THE ONSIDE KICK
Alabama’s Adam Griffith had just kicked a 33-yard field goal to tie the game at 24 with 10:34 left, but it was his next kick that everybody remembers. He executed a perfectly placed onside kick that bounced into the hands of a leaping Marlon Humphrey, and two plays later, Jake Coker hit O.J. Howard with a 51-yard touchdown pass to put Alabama ahead 31-24 and completely change the complexion of the game.
Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick: “We’d worked on it in practice over and over again and didn’t always get it right. I think the last couple of times we tried it before the game, we didn’t get it. But we did when it counted.”
Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley: “We’d been practicing that kick from the beginning of the season, and the coaches never called it. I’m only a freshman and wondering why they never called it, and then the last game of the season, they call it at the perfect time.”
Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow: “I was actually a backup for that position, and we’d talked about if they chip it over there to fair-catch it. Three years ago, when I was a redshirt, we did it to South Carolina, and they did a fair catch and got the ball because they fair-caught it.”
Alabama center Bradley Bozeman: “I just remember thinking, ‘We’re actually going to do it,’ and when we got it, everybody went crazy.”
Clemson receiver/holder, and Dabo’s son, Will Swinney (who was still in high school): “I was standing there right close to it and was excited because we were about to get the ball back and they hadn’t been able to stop Deshaun, and they kick onsides and you’re like, ‘Oh no.’ It was devastating. We went into the fourth quarter with the lead and were something like 60-0 with a lead. It just felt like we were about to win.”
O.J. HOWARD RUNS WILD
Howard, who hadn’t had more than 70 receiving yards all season, kept getting free against the Clemson defense and hauled in five catches for 208 yards. In addition to his 51-yard touchdown catch, he had a 63-yard catch late in the game that helped seal it for the Tide.
Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins: “We knew how good he was, even though they hadn’t used him as much as you would think during the season. And then every time you look around, he’s open and running down the field. It just kept happening.”
Ridley: “It’s almost like they forgot about him, and I’m glad they did.”
KENYAN DRAKE’S KICKOFF RETURN FOR A TOUCHDOWN
The two teams combined for 40 points in a thrilling fourth quarter, but Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return — to put Alabama ahead 38-27 with 7:31 left — was the moment in the game when it started to feel like an Alabama victory.
Fitzpatrick: “They were right there, but when you hit a team with a special-teams touchdown like that, it changes. I just remember I didn’t play well. I gave up two touchdowns [to Renfrow], and that kickoff return sort of bailed us out on defense and took a lot out of them.”
Renfrow: “The biggest deflator for us was their kickoff return. Special teams killed us.”
Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans: “Watson was unbelievable. He kept finding ways to convert when we thought we had him. You were just relieved to see the final seconds finally tick off the clock.”
Renfrow: “The locker room, just getting in there and seeing those seniors and their pain. That was their first national championship, and for us, we never knew if we were going to get back. But we a chance to, and those seniors did not have any more chances. They were gone. So just seeing the regret on their faces was the hardest part. We had a great season. That’s the only game that we lost. We’d had a great season up until then. You remember those faces, and you felt for them.”
The first game between the two teams was fabulous. The rematch was even better, with Watson throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to Renfrow with one second to play to give the Tigers their first national championship since 1981. Once again, Watson was brilliant with 463 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. His game winner to Renfrow came on a rub play with Renfrow popping wide open. Of course, Alabama’s description of the play would probably fall more along the lines of it being an illegal pick play. Either way, it’s a play they will be talking about for a long time in the annals of college football.
Renfrow: “It was defensive pass interference in my opinion. It might have been a designed rub play, maybe, but it never got there. Even if the outside guys were there, I think I still might have gotten open and scored.”
Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell: “I had just come out of the locker room, because I got a shot in my ankle, to see if I could come back out and play after getting hurt. I was limping around on the sideline with Regan Upshaw, one of my good friends on the team. I was leaning on his shoulder. We were low-key standing on the field, and he was trying to pull me back like the pull-back guy. Then you see Hunter catch the touchdown, and I’m jumping around on one leg. It was crazy. That’s something I will never forget. You can say it’s a great feeling to win a national championship. But when you see that ball go in the end zone and know it’s over, there’s no other feeling like it.”
Evans was the closest to Watson as he threw. But when Watson rolled out, Evans wasn’t quite able to get him.
Evans: “It was the worst feeling ever. It still is. When you lose it like that, it doesn’t go away.”
Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt: “They had one timeout left and were on the 2, and with [Watson], that’s what they do down there, let him run. You had to make them throw it to beat you, which they did.”
Renfrow: “The DB was playing a little outside leverage, so I was thinking, ‘All right, he’s giving me the slant, maybe I can beat him with that, give him a hard step inside,’ and I knew I had help coming from the outside, he’d have to run the hump, and so I just gave him a hard step inside, he bit on it and it all worked out.”
Renfrow said he flashed back to spring practice right before the snap.
Renfrow: “This picture of dormant grass popped into my mind. I say that because I line up, and in those big moments, I try to take it back to practice, try to take it back to things we’ve done over and over again. Lining up spring practice, that’s what I saw. I pictured that dormant grass, [Clemson LB] Dorian O’Daniel over me, running that route; and it’s funny, because that play ‘Crush’ is the same play we scored on in the first TD in our spring game to start the season. So it started and ended with that play. It was cool to see it come full circle.”
As Watson gathered his teammates together in the huddle right before the winning drive, he delivered his now-famous “Let’s go be legendary” message.
Clemson offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder: “He looked at all of us and said it, and we believed it. We’d been in those situations before, and we knew we had Deshaun Watson back there.”
Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell had a similar message for his offensive linemen before they went back out on the field for the winning drive.
Caldwell: “Boys, we are fixin’ to be national champions.”
Pruitt: “They needed a field goal to tie. I’m thinking, ‘Let’s win the game. Let’s be aggressive.’ Our thoughts were to play it like it was first and second down. Let’s get them before they get us. And you look over the course of that drive, there were five plays [Watson] made or that the receivers made where he’s getting hit as he throws the ball and is putting it in tight windows. At the end of the day, they just made one more play than we did.”
JALEN HURTS‘ TOUCHDOWN RUN
Hurts’ tackle-breaking, 30-yard touchdown run put Alabama ahead 31-28, but the Tide left Watson with just over two minutes to play.
Bozeman: “I kind of had mixed emotions about it. We scored really fast. I would have liked to have eaten up some more clock because you had Deshaun Watson on the other side. But it happens. It’s part of the game. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.”
Alabama running back Damien Harris: “I was excited and confident. We all were, but then you look at the clock, and they had Deshaun Watson. Moments like that are where he made his name and cemented his legacy in college football.”
Hurts: “With our defense, you always feel good, the way they’d been playing all year. I just wish we could have helped them more.”
Wilkins: “It was frustrating to not be able to finish that game on defense and do your part. That sticks with you because if the offense doesn’t make plays on that next drive, who knows if we would have been national champions?”
O’Daniel: “There was never any panic, but we’re a team that doesn’t panic.”
The game-winning touchdown catch is the play everybody remembers, but Renfrow had a tackle earlier in the game that was also extremely important. Alabama’s Ryan Anderson picked up a fumble and looked like he might score, but Renfrow came out of nowhere to tackle him on the 16. The Clemson defense wound up holding Alabama to a field goal, and the Tide went up 17-7 instead of 21-7.
Renfrow: “If he had looked left, he was going to stiff-arm me and run for a touchdown. But fortunately, he kind of picked it up and peeked right. If he had peeked left first, I think he might have scored. I was just lucky in that sense.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables: “I’m thankful he had the fortitude to get the guy down to the ground, and we were able to get a stop there. He tackled [340-pound] Dexter Lawrence in Dexter’s first play ever in Death Valley. It was spring practice. Dexter’s first play was a pick, and Hunter Renfrow tackled him. So he’s tackled giants before. But it was huge and gave us a chance to line up and play defense.”
Crowder: “It was a blur and a surreal moment. I remember hugging Coach Swinney, telling him I loved him and that I was proud to be a Tiger.”
Will Swinney: “I’d seen the highs and lows at Clemson, and to see it go from where it was when my dad got there to a national championship was special. I saw my brothers first and then my mom, and saw my dad right before he went up on the stage. We went up there with him. It’s something I’d dreamed about and was so proud of him to have led us to that moment.”
Alabama nose guard Da’Ron Payne: “It was on us, and we didn’t finish. That’s what we pride ourselves on at Alabama: finishing everything we do. It’s one of those feelings you never want to feel again, but it sticks with you and never really goes away.”
Will Swinney: “I always felt like if we won a national championship, it would be against Alabama. It just felt right with my dad playing there and all that. And, now, it’s the trilogy.”