As Clemson was tearing apart the most dominant college football defense of all time, I couldn’t help but wonder:
What are the Washington Huskies thinking right now?
Did they want Alabama to win as decisively as it did in the Peach Bowl? That 24-7 pummeling taken by the Huskies looks respectable if the Crimson Tide rolls to a dominant victory on Monday night.
Midway through the third quarter against Clemson, Alabama’s 17-7 lead was identical to the third-quarter lead it had against Washington. The national championship appeared to be a sequel of the semifinal: a suffocating defense too fast, and too strong, for an error-prone offense to hang with it.
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And then Clemson turned into the team the Huskies wished they were. Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson refused to be intimidated by the fierce pass rush that rattled Jake Browning. Watson delivered dart after dart, but his throws weren’t all pinpoint. Some required his receivers to make clutch catches, spectacular in real time and even more impressive during the inevitable replay review.
The Clemson Tigers showed up on college football’s brightest stage and produced the game of their lives, and I suspect whatever consolation the Huskies got from hanging within 10 points of Alabama through three quarters was replaced by the frustration they were unable to do the same thing.
Washington’s playmakers failed to make plays on both sides of the ball, beginning with Budda Baker’s drop of Jalen Hurts’ first pass. An early interception like that can test the confidence of a freshman quarterback, and had the NFL-bound safety managed to hold onto the ball, a pick-six chance awaited because there was lots of daylight.
The challengers had shown their jitters. And though they went on to score the touchdown that gave them a 7-0 lead, Alabama wore down a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time team unaccustomed to the spotlight.
Clemson, by contrast, was emotionally locked and loaded for its national-championship rematch. When the Tigers faced a 14-point deficit in the second quarter, they didn’t see it in the spirit of “we’re gonna lose to a team that never loses, but let’s try to keep the score respectable.”
They saw the 14-point deficit as nothing more than what it was — a two-touchdown deficit, with plenty of time remaining for a comeback — and they went to work.
That best-ever Tide defense was vulnerable. Until Monday, Nick Saban’s Alabama teams were 96-0 when entering the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead. Clemson scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Exhaustion had to be a factor: The Tigers controlled possession for almost 35 minutes. Prolonged replay-review delays gave the Alabama defense a chance to catch its breath, but against a quarterback as relentless as Watson, 35 minutes amounted to an eternity.
To nobody’s surprise, the Tide shut down Clemson’s ground attack — 42 rushing attempts netted all of 91 yards. To nobody’s surprise, Watson went to the air, throwing 56 passes.
Imagine yourself as an Alabama defensive back competing for a national championship. Imagine yourself attempting to stay stride-for-stride with a receiver 56 times.
Watson completed 36 of those 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns — solid numbers against any opponent, ridiculous numbers against the Tide — but Clemson’s fourth-quarter flurry was more about its sheer will than Alabama’s defensive lapses.
The Tigers controlled their destiny, albeit with a little help from, well, destiny. Watson’s last-second touchdown lob to unguarded receiver Hunter Renfrow could have been mitigated by an offensive pass-interference penalty — a fellow receiver ran a route with the clear intention of setting a pick — but no flag was dropped, and only a fluky, hot-potato kickoff return separated Clemson from the national championship.
A pooch boot seemed in order, but head coach Dabo Swinney had a better idea: an onside-kick dribbler so effective — 10 yards with an inch to spare — it stands to change the future of onside kicks.
Clemson’s recovery of the kick concluded a contest instantly perceived as a classic, worthy of “Best Game Ever” nomination.
And yet as fun as it was for neutral observers to watch, I’ve got a feeling the Washington Huskies weren’t exchanging fist bumps after Watson threw the last-second touchdown pass that snapped Alabama’s 26-game winning streak.
Turns out those guys were beatable.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath