Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports 1:55 a.m. EST January 12, 2016
USA TODAY Sports breaks down the College Football Playoff title game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. USA TODAY Sports
GLENDALE, Ariz. â He has now won five national titles, staking his claim as arguably the greatest coach of all-time. But Nick Saban has never had to overcome an opponent like this with so much on the line, making all the more impressive what Alabama did Monday night to beat No. 1-ranked Clemson for the College Football Playoff titleÂ 45-40.
Frustrated again by a spread offense and a superstar dual-threat quarterback that kept Alabama on its heels most of the night, the Crimson Tide found a deep reserve of guts and guile in the fourth quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium, securing Alabamaâs fourth championship in the last seven years.
It took two long touchdown plays to rarely targeted tight end O.J. Howard, plenty of special teams magic and dodging daggers from Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who accounted for 473 of Clemson’s 550 total yards.
“When you play players like (Watson), the whole team has to win,” Saban said.
In no way, shape or form was this the traditional Alabama formula relying on dominant defense and its running game. In fact, Clemsonâs defensive front was so physically overwhelming that Alabama struggled to protect quarterback Jacob Coker, who was sacked five times, and run the ball in the second half.
But Saban, whose team had rarely been challenged since losing to Ole Miss in September, made a series of brilliant calls that quickly turned a game seemingly headed toward an epic finish.
And Alabama showed both its flexibility and depth of talent, erupting for 24 fourth-quarter points after trailing 24-21.
Alabama tied the game at 24-24 with 10:34 remaining on a 33-yard field goal by Adam Griffith, then surprised everyone with an onsideÂ kick that brought a smile out of Saban, a high pooch that was perfectly executed and hauled out of the air by cornerback Marlon Humphrey with no orange jersey even near him.
âI think that changed the momentum of the game, and our guys finished it,â Saban said.
Two plays later, Coker had Howard an easy, wide-open strike over the middle; his second long touchdown catch of the half against a coverage bust in the Clemson secondary.
Though Clemson mustered a field goal on the next possession to stay within range, Alabama running back Kenyan Drake took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown with 7:31 remaining for a 38-27 lead.
That was just enough breathing room against Watson, who drove Clemson down the field and hit Artavis Scott for a 15-yard touchdown with 4:40 remaining to pull within 38-33.
But instead of relying on its running game to churn clock â it couldnât, as Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry finished with just 30 yards on 16 carries in the second half â the Tide came up with another big play to Howard, who took a swing pass and raced 63 yards down the sideline with 3:45 left, setting up Henry’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:07 remaining.
Howard finished with five catches for 208 yards, the first 100-yard receiving game of his career.
He was the difference against Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney, a son of Alabama and player on the Crimson Tideâs 1992 national championship team.
Though Swinneyâs team fought brilliantly all night, it could not overcome the loss of star cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who left the game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and whose absence was felt as Alabama completed long pass after long pass.
Coker finished 16-for-25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns.
Even at that, Alabama had to recover an onsideÂ kick after Watson’s fourth touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining before it could celebrate its first championship since 2012.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: CLEMSON VS. ALABAMAÂ