Deshaun Watson, it seems, had grown weary of the background.
No. 3 in the Heisman voting, 2015.
No. 2 in the Heisman voting, 2016.
No. 2 in the national championship playoffs, 2015.
For most of Monday night’s game against favored Alabama, it seemed that Watson might finish short of the finish line again. Instead, he led Clemson on a 68-yard drive in the last 127 seconds, throwing a two-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow to pull out a 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide.
It was an upset win for the Tigers, who were facing a team that many had begun to refer as the best team in history. A year ago, despite 405 yards passing by Watson, the Tigers had dropped a 45-40 decision to Alabama.
This time, Watson threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Clemson comeback.
“I told my team that the lights they had shine inside of them would be brighter than the light that shined on them,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “It’s been 35 years.
“There was no upset tonight. That’s the last thing I told them when we left the locker room. I said, when we win the game tonight I don’t want to hear one word about this being an upset. The only upset is going to be if we don’t win the dadgum game. I don’t want to hear one word about it. This is an expectation, the last thing I told them. We expected to win the game. We expected to win it last year. When we take the field, we expect to win because we work our tails off, and we got a committed group of people, staff, players, everybody.”
Alabama took a 14-0 lead on two touchdown runs by Bo Scarbrough, who had to leave the game with an injury. But the Tide sputtered offensively for most of the game. It will always be a question how much harder coach Nick Saban made it by changing offensive coordinators the week before the title when he dumped Lane Kiffen.
“I think the players handled it very well,” Saban said.” I think we scored 31 points in the game, which I think was pretty good against a pretty good defense that actually shut out Ohio State last week. I think we had some drops. I think we had some tipped balls. I think there was things that we could have done better. But I thought the preparation was good. I thought the organization was good, and I thought we gave our players a chance in this game to have success.
“Was it challenging? Yes. Did everyone involved handle it extremely well? Absolutely.”
Watson hit Mike Williams for four yards and Wayne Gallman ran for one-yard to give Clemson a 28-24 win. But Alabama came back itself, and quarterback Jalen Hurts ran 30 yards to give the Tide the lead.
After that, Watson drove the Tigers downfield, hitting six of eight passes.
“As I said earlier, and I’ll say it again, he didn’t lose out on the Heisman, the Heisman lost out on him,” Swinney said. “They lost out on an opportunity to be attached to this guy forever. But this guy, his class, his humility, this was his Heisman tonight, and this was really what he wanted. This is what he came to Clemson to do.
“He’s just been an unbelievable, unbelievable player, preparer, leader, and ambassador for this university. He set the standard. He set the bar for everybody coming through. It’s just unreal. Over a 3.0, and I’m so proud of him. I mean, this guy deserves it. I told him, I said, you deserve it. And I’m just happy that we have this moment to share in it, and the rest of these seniors, they’ll take this with them forever. They’ll take this into their marriages, they’ll take this into their jobs. The moment will fade, but the work ethic, the will to win, the passion, the courage, the guts, the teamwork, the belief, how to think the right way, they’ll take that with them forever.”
Saban tried to find some consolation on the season his team had.
“I have to say that I’m extremely proud of our team for what they were able to accomplish this entire season,” said Saban. “I don’t think one game defines who you are, you know, as a person, as a competitor, or as a team and certainly not define what this group of young men was able to accomplish this year. It was a hard-fought game out there today, very disappointing to lose a game like that, and I wish there was something else that I could do for the players to help them be more successful in the game.”