Alabama won the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship by overcoming its inability to play as well as it has in other key games this year, and also holding on against an outstanding Clemson team that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Crimson Tide took a 45-40 win over the Tigers in Glendale, Ariz., Monday night.
Alabama is accustomed to Derrick Henry scoring touchdowns, and the Crimson Tide’s Heisman Trophy winner had three. Bama fans are not used to seeing O.J. Howard get a pass thrown to him, but he was the primary target for Jacob Coker in the championship battle with two long touchdown catches.
The Tide had huge plays in the kicking game, including recovering a surprise on-side kick that led to a fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown and Kenyan Drake returning a kickoff 95 yards for another touchdown in the final period.
Clemson did not go down easily. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team was more than worthy of being in the national championship game.
Alabama improved its record to 14-1, while Clemson fell to 14-1.
Although under the heading of “to the winner belong the spoils,” the most valuable players in the game were Howard on offense and safety Eddie Jackson (who turned in a key interception) on defense, there is little doubt that Bama’s defense has great respect for Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson. The junior ran 10 times for 73 yards and completed 30-47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns in a losing effort.
Derrick Henry ran the ball 36 times for 158 yards – most of them very tough yards – for three touchdowns. Jacob Coker completed 16 of 25 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns, but was sacked five times. Howard, who came into the game with 33 catches for 394 yards and had not scored a touchdown since his freshman season, had five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Calvin Ridley was mostly bottled up by the Clemson defense with six receptions for only 14 yards. ArDarius Stewart had two receptions for 63 yards, Richard Mullaney one for 29, and Kenyan Drake two for 21.
JK Scott averaged 42.4 yards on seven punts. Drake had five kickoff returns for 196 yards, including his 95-yard runback for a touchdown. Adam Griffith was good on one of two field goal attempts and made all six of his extra point kicks.
On defense, Geno Matias-Smith had 11 primary tackles to lead the Tide. Reuben Foster was in on 9 tackles (8 primary). Cyrus Jones, Reggie Ragland, and Marlon Humphrey were all in on five tackles. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Da’Shawn Hand were in on four tackles, Rashaan Evans was in on three tackles, including have two sacks on Watson for 14 yards in losses. Also in on three tackles were Dillon Lee, A’Shawn Robinson, Denzel Devall, and Eddie Jackson.
D.J. Pettway had a blocked field goal attempt. Humphrey, Fitzpatrick, and Pettway broke up two passes each, and Ronnie Harrison had one.
The defense did not have a good day. Clemson had 31 first downs to Bama’s 18. The Tigers rushed 38 times for 145 yards, Bama 46 for 138. Clemson had 85 plays for 550 yards, 6.5 per play, while the Tide had 71 pl;ays for 473 yards, 6.7 per play.
Clemson fumbled twice, but recovered both, and suffered an interception. Alabama had no turnovers. The Tide was penalized two times for 21 yards, Clemson four times for 27.
Alabama was successful on 9-18 third down conversions, Clemson 6-14. The Tide had an advantage of about one minute in time of possession, 30:31 to 29:29.
As it turned out, the winning Alabama points came on a one-yard touchdown run by Henry. The score was set up on a Coker to Howard pass for 63 yards to the Clemson 14. Three plays got a first down at the Clemson three and three plays later Henry was in. Alabama had a 45-33 lead with 1:07 to play.
Even in a hopeless situation, Clemson didn’t quit. The Tigers drove 68 yards in 6 plays, taking only 50 seconds to pull the final score to 45-40. Watson completed a 24-yard pass to tight end Jordan Leggett for the score.
Alabama struck first in the third quarter after a 14-14 first half. Coker spotted tight end O.J. Howard wide open down the right sideline. Coker hit him at the 27 and Howard took it the rest of the way on the 53-yard touchdown.
Clemson seemed about to tie the game when a pass interference call against Bama allowed the Tigers to set up at the Tide 21. A couple of Clemson passes, however, fell incomplete and the Tigers had to settle for a Greg Huegel 37-yard field goal that pulled Clemson to 21-17.
Alabama made a stab at a goalline stand late in the third quarter, but Clemson tailback Wayne Gallman slipped over on third-and-goal from the one to give the Tigers a 24-21 lead.
Bama tied the game at 24-24 with Stewart making both his catches in the same series, grabs of 25 and 38 yards. His second reception put Bama at the Clemson 18, but the Tide had to settle for a 33-yard Adam Griffith field goal that tied the game.
The surprise – and perhaps the play – of the game came next. Griffith kicked off onsides and the ball was recovered by freshman cornerback Marlon Humphrey for the Tide at midfield. On first down, Henry lost a yard, but on second down Coker again spotted a wide open Howard on a 51-yard scoring pass. Bama was up 31-24.
The Tigers drove downfield to get a field goal to pull to within 31-27. But that didn’t last long, because on the kickoff following the field goal, Kenyan Drake took the ball at his 5, went left up the sideline, and made a frantic dive that just got him into the end zone on his 95-yard kickoff return. It was Bama 38, Clemson 27.
But once again, the Tigers showed grit. They drove 75 yards in eight plays and pulled to within 38-33. Watson tried to run for a two-point conversion, but was pulled down short by Jarran Reed, keeping Clemson five points behind the Tide.
Both teams would score once more.
Although the game was tied at intermission, 14-14, it was a ragged performance for Alabama. The unquestioned highlight for the Tide was on offense, when Bama’s second possession resulted in Henry’s first touchdown.
Cyrus Jones had given Alabama good field position with a 12-yard return of a punt to set the Tide up at its 41. Two Henry runs made it third-and-one at midfield. Everyone in the stadium knew it would be a handoff to Henry, but that didn’t stop the junior tailback from bursting through and going to the end zone. Adam Griffith’s extra point kick made it 7-0 with 7:55 to play, a 53-second drive.
Clemson’s Artavis Scott returned the kickoff 43 yards to set the Tigers up in good field posiition. A pass interference call kept the drive alive and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow hooked up on the first of their two first half touchdown plays. The Watson pass was perfect on the 31-yard score. Greg Huegel kicked it to a 7-7 tie with 5:18 to play in the first quarter.
Alabama seemed bent on responding when the Tide got a 25-yard pass completion from Jacob Coker to O.J. Howard to move deep into Clemson territory, but Coker was sacked and the drive died with Griffith missing a 44-yard field goal.
Watson hit a couple of key passes to move the Tigers to the Alabama 12, and on a third-and-nine play that would be the last of the first quarter, Watson found Renfrow over the middle in the end zone to make it Clemson 14, Alabama 7.
On Clemson’s first possession of the second quarter, Tide safety Eddie Jackson pulled down an interception at the Clemson 42. On a double reverse, Drake got a big block from tackle Cam Robinson for a six-yard gain. Henry then went up the middle for 12, and with a facemask penalty tacked on, the Tide had first down at the Clemson 12. But two plays later it was third and seven from the 9. Coker hit Ridley for just enough and two plays later from the 1, Henry took it in for his second touchdown and the game was tied at 14-14 with 9:35 remaining in the first half.
Clemson made a nice drive to have a chance to take the lead just before halftime, but Huegel’s 44-yard field goal attempt was partially blocked by D.J. Pettway and was no good.