TAMPA — Deshaun Watson had been battling Alabama for a collective 117 minutes and 53 seconds over two meetings, and yet again, his team was behind. Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts had just dashed into the end zone for a go-ahead 30-yard touchdown with 2:07 left. If Clemson didn’t respond, its national championship hopes would slip away a second straight year.
On the nine-play, 68-yard drive that followed, Watson calmly told his teammates: “Hey, let’s be legendary. Let’s go be great.” He told himself that Alabama had left him too much time on the clock.
It culminated with him standing behind center with just six seconds left, the end zone just two tantalizing yards away from the line of scrimmage. The call was “Crush,” a rub play for receiver Hunter Renfrow. Complete it, and the Tigers claim their first national championship in 35 years. They avenge a painful title game loss a year earlier and end the Crimson Tide’s 26-game win streak.
“I kind of smiled,” said Watson, “and I knew before I even snapped the ball it was going to be a touchdown. All I had to do was just get the ball to him.”
And of course, he did.
With only one second to spare.
Clemson 35, Alabama 31.
In the most dramatic national championship game of the BCS or College Football Playoff era, Watson etched his name among the best to ever play the sport. His 420-yard, three-touchdown passing performance — coming on the heels of his 478 total yards and four TDs in last year’s 45-40 title game loss to the Tide — sent a definitive message. Not even the sport’s most dominant defense in five years could keep him from delivering a seemingly fated moment.
“He’s the G.O.A.T.,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “He’s going to go down as the greatest of all time in Clemson history as a quarterback.”
“He’s the best player in the country,” said star receiver Mike Williams, “and he knows it.”
Unfortunately, many of the rest of us did not appreciate that until the very end — this Heisman voter included.
Years from now, we’ll look back and wonder how Watson — who finishes his Clemson career with a 32-3 record as a starter — never won that fabled trophy. A year ago he finished third behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
A year later, he became runner-up — to a player, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who he beat head-to-head in October.
“He didn’t lose out on the Heisman,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Monday night. “The Heisman lost on him.”
End of day, Watson produced nearly 1,000 yards of offense in two meetings with an Alabama defense that’s made a living out of humbling opposing quarterbacks. The Tide certainly took their shots Monday night, sacking him four times. At one point, Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Reuben Foster teamed up to send both of Watson’s legs flying through the air on a vicious open-field hit.
Watson kept popping back up. Just like he brushed off 17 interceptions this season to get his team to the title game, or criticism that he’d regressed from his sophomore to his junior years. Or the 24-14 deficit Clemson had to overcome at the start of the fourth quarter.
“It’s nothing new to him,” said Tigers receiver Deon Cain. “It’s nothing new to us what he does. At the end of the day, we know Deshaun will be Deshaun.”
Whether or not the country truly appreciated his talents, Watson assured with Monday’s victory that he’ll leave Clemson as the school’s most revered player in program history.
A five-star recruit who delivered on his promise, a model citizen who inspired others with his extensive community work, Watson’s Clemson legacy is immeasurable. He came to Swinney’s program at a point where it was just starting to move from good to great. Predecessor Tajh Boyd delivered an ACC championship and an Orange Bowl win, heights the Tigers hadn’t reached in several decades.
With Watson, though, Clemson became a power. Looking back now at the conquests on his resume is like leafing through a who’s who of college football. He beat Florida State and Oklahoma, demolished Urban Meyer-led Ohio State in a playoff semifinal. But most of all, he rendered Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty mortal.
He led Clemson to its first national championship since 1981 and completely redefined the nation’s perception of Swinney’s program.
“He’s just been an unbelievable player, preparer, leader and ambassador for this university,” said Swinney. “He set the standard. He set the bar for everybody coming through. It’s just unreal.”
On the final play of his Clemson career, the celebrated blue-chipper threw a touchdown to a scrawny former walk-on, both of whom represent everything the country has come to love about Swinney’s fun-loving program.
The morning of the game, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott told his players to think of Monday night’s game as the final act of a movie.
“We talked about a finish like this happening,” Scott said afterward. “There’s no doubt we wanted to win last year. But in a movie, the best part doesn’t happen in the middle. The adversity happens in the middle, and the best part happens right there at the end.
“I didn’t know the end would be with one second left. I was just thinking it was going to be tonight.
“There was this confidence among our guys — coaches, players, everybody — for the last month, and especially this last week, that somehow, someway, we’re going to find a way to get it done.”
That confidence began with No. 4. And it began long before last week or last month. It began the day Watson arrived on campus as an early enrollee freshman.
Three years later, that confidence culminated with an epic championship performance that won’t soon be forgotten — by the Clemson community or college football history.