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GLENDALE, ARIZ. (clemsontigers.com) — Clemson fought valiantly and held a fourth-quarter lead, but late special teams plays by Alabama proved to be the difference in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game as the Crimson Tide prevailed, 45-40. The Tigers finished the terrific 2015 season with a 14-1 record.
“What a year,” said Head Coach Dabo Swinney. “I’m incredibly proud of our team. Obviously we wanted to win the game and we came up a little short, but at least the nation saw tonight why we’ve been so successful. This was a team that had incredible will to win and heart, and gave us everything that they had. It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that.”
Deshaun Watson was brilliant in defeat, accounting for a career-high 478 yards of total offense and four touchdowns through the air. The sophomore signal-caller finished in fine fashion, becoming the first quarterback in FBS history with at least 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Defensively, Kevin Dodd was a bright spot with a career-high five tackles for loss.
The Tigers lost for the first time in their history when producing at least 500 yards of total offense. Clemson finished with 550 yards to Alabama’s 473, but the Crimson Tide scored on a kickoff return for touchdown in the fourth quarter that provided momentum. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry finished with 36 carries for 158 yards for the Tide.
Henry struck first, scoring on a 50-yard scamper in which he went untouched over the right side of the defense. But Clemson answered quickly when Watson found former walk-on Hunter Renfrow on a beautiful 31-yard pass into the right corner of the endzone to knot the score at 7-7. The two connected again a drive later when Watson hit him in the middle of the endzone to give the Tigers a 14-7 cushion after the first quarter. Renfrow finished with a season-high seven catches.
Watson was intercepted on the Tigers’ ensuing possession, which gave Alabama great field position. The Tide took advantage, with Henry plunging in from a yard out with 9:35 remaining in the second quarter. Neither team scored again, with Alabama blocking a 44-yard field goal attempt by Greg Huegel in the final seconds.
The Crimson Tide posted the opening score after halftime. Following a Clemson three-and-out, Jake Coker lofted a 53-yard touchdown pass to O.J. Howard after busted coverage allowed him to run wide open down the right sideline.
As he did all night, Watson had the answer. First, he drove the Tigers down for a field goal. Then, he weaved through traffic time and again to set up Clemson’s go-ahead score, a one-yard rushing touchdown by Wayne Gallman that made the lead 24-21 heading into the final quarter of play.
Alabama tied it on a field goal early in the period, and then executed a perfect surprise onside kick to recover at midfield. Two plays later, the Tide went up 31-24 on a second touchdown pass from Coker to Howard. After the lead stretched to 38-27 on the kickoff return for a touchdown, Watson went back to work. He got Clemson in scoring position, and hit Artavis Scott on an easy touchdown completion that cut the deficit to 45-40, but it was too late for a Tiger comeback.