Bonnell: Alabama edges Clemson for the national championship

By Rick Bonnell

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (4) leaves the field the Tigers were defeated by the Alabama Crimson Tide 45-40 in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (4) leaves the field the Tigers were defeated by the Alabama Crimson Tide 45-40 in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Getty Images

Alabama proved to be the best team in college football, but the best player in the national championship game didn’t wear crimson.

It wasn’t close, and that was with Alabama running back Derrick Henry – the reigning Heisman Trophy winner – rushing for 158 yards. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was magnificent, even as his team lost 45-40 at University of Phoenix Stadium Monday night.

Watson accounted for nearly 500 yards passing and rushing Monday, and there wasn’t much else that kept Clemson (14-1) in this game. Check that: Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, a former walk-on from Myrtle Beach, kept getting behind Alabama’s name-brand secondary in the first half. Renfrow caught both of Watson’s first-half touchdowns, which allowed Clemson to go into the locker room tied at halftime.

Sophomore Watson is all that and, thanks to the NFL’s draft-entry rules (a player must spend three seasons in college before turning pro), he will be back for another run at the championship in 2016. His final numbers: 30-of-47 for 407 yards passing and four touchdowns. An additional 73 yards on 20 carries rushing.

Clemson knew Watson was a breakthrough recruit when he committed to the Tigers out of Gainesville, Ga. This wasn’t supposed to be Clemson’s special season, with so much of the offensive and defensive lines turning over.

But the lines matured quickly and Watson’s elusiveness saves three or four sacks per game. He’ll enter next season as a clear favorite for the Heisman.

The problem for Clemson Monday was more on the other side of the line, particularly after star cornerback Mackensie Alexander sat out the second half with a hamstring injury. Alexander was key to the Tigers’ plan to contain Henry, because he could cover Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley without help.

That would allow Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables to devote more players to run support. When you’re trying to tackle 6-3, 242-yard Henry, you need all help possible.

The Tigers unraveled on kickoff coverage, which has been a concern all season. First Alabama succeeded with an on-sides kick to take over at midfield, leading to a go-ahead score. Then Alabama’s Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards to make this a two-score lead with 7 and  1/2 minutes left.

Watson wasn’t done, throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to Artavis Scott with  4 and 1/2 minutes left.

Trouble is you give the Crimson Tide the lead, with that running back and that defensive front, and all you’re really doing is minimizing your margin of defeat. Alabama effectively finished this one with 3:44 left, when quarterback Jake Coker completed a 63-yard catch-and-sprint to O.J. Howard.

Coach Nick Saban won his fifth national championship – one at LSU, four more with the Crimson Tide.

The 31-yard touchdown throw Watson made for Clemson’s first touchdown might have been the second-best of his college career. It’s hard to top that dart into the end zone at Georgia when Watson was a freshman.

Watson was Clemson’s offense in the first half because Alabama’s front seven so thoroughly shut down running back Wayne Gallman. Gallman bludgeoned Oklahoma in the second half of the Orange Bowl, but he gained just eight yards on eight carries in the first half here.

With the inside running game taken away, the onus was on Watson to extend plays. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, another Georgian who has mentored Watson, must have been proud of his protégé. Watson completed 12 of 18 first-half passes for 162 yards and the two touchdowns to Renfrow. He also gained 45 yards on nine carries, by far the Tigers’ best rusher.

Watson made just one first-half mistake, but it was big. He locked on to a receiver while rolling right in the second quarter, getting picked off by Alabama defensive back Eddie Jackson. Watson didn’t do anything to disguise his intention, making it an easy read for Jackson.

But with everything else Watson provided Monday, one bad throw was more than acceptable.

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