In the end, you just can’t lose the turnover battle, lose on special teams, blow coverages and expect to win a national championship game. Clemson did all those things and still came a lot closer than one might have expected, given those errors, but in the end they were the difference in Alabama’s 45-40 win in the College Football Championship Game.
Clemson had an early chance to take control of the game, holding a 14-7 lead in the second quarter and they had Alabama on their heels. DeShaun Watson forced a throw to the right sideline that was intercepted by Eddie Jackson. It set up a short field and tying touchdown for the Tide.
Early in the third quarter, the game still tied 14-14, no one on the Tiger defense bothered to cover tight end O.J. Howard as he streaked down the right sideline with no one in sight for the go-ahead score. Howard would later do the same thing on the left side in the fourth quarter, and then he did it one more time on a big play that set up the clinching touchdown.
These mistakes alone should have been enough to sink a team that was a 6 ½ point underdog and playing a defense that was seen as all-time great. But Clemson still would have survived if not for two enormous special teams plays.
One of them, a 97-yard kickoff return by Kenyan Drake that made the score 38-27 with seven minutes left, was another breakdown. The other was probably more about a great execution and a great call by Alabama.
Nick Saban, conjuring up memories of Sean Payton in the Saints-Colts Super Bowl following the 2009 season, called for an onside kick with the score tied 24-24 early in the fourth quarter. Alabama bunched their players up tight in the middle to pull the Clemson defenders in. The onside kick then went outside and it was a race to the football. The Tide won, quickly scored and the momentum of the game was never the same.
The analogies to Texas-USC ten years ago were alive in this game. Much like this year you had a team aiming to add to a dynasty (USC & Alabama) playing a dynamic quarterback who could run, throw and was a Heisman finalist (Watson being this year’s Vince Young).
Watson did everything he realistically could to make that dream come true. While I noted his interception, that was his only mistake on a night he was responsible for creating virtually everything. He was the Tigers running game. His passing was set up by his running and was routinely brilliant. He threw for 405 yards against a defense that everyone thought was impenetrable.
It’s small consolation, but when we talk about the great championship performances in a losing cause, Watson will be right up there among the best of all-time. I would have voted for him as game MVP, an honor that went to Howard. Without DeShaun, this game would have been a rout. With him, it became a game that Clemson probably should have won.
But the difference between USC in 2005 and Alabama in 2015 is that the Tide did not beat themselves. The Trojan defeat was marked by a turnover off a foolish lateral by Reggie Bush and an idiotic decision by then-head coach Pete Carroll to go for it on 4th-and-2 by Pete Carroll and give Young a short field on his game-winning drive. Alabama made no such mistakes.
There were no turnovers by Jake Coker and the Crimson Tide offense. There was no coaching hubris by Nick Saban and his coordinators, Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart. To beat Alabama, you need only have to beat them in the flow of play you have to avoid making any mistakes. That’s a pretty tough parlay. Clemson pulled off the first, but got done in by the second. And the result is that Nick Saban follows in the footsteps of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and wins his fifth national championship in 2015.