Alabama’s defense was better in Round 2. And so was Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
In the national championship game at the end of the 2015 season, Alabama withstood a masterful performance from Watson and pulled out a title win for the ages. A year later, the rematch pitted an older Watson against an Alabama defense that some said could be the best in college football history — or at least the best under Nick Saban.
In this prize fight, Watson threw a lot of quick jabs early at his behemoth of an opponent. Alabama’s defense got its shots early and often. But as the Alabama offense struggled maintaining rhythm as the game continued, Watson landed more punches downfield with his veteran cast of receivers.
Below are quarter-by-quarter breakdowns of Watson’s 420-yard, 4-touchdown performance against Alabama’s top-ranked defense Monday night. Thanks to a wide range of play calls and impressive individual efforts, Watson was able to pull off the upset for his Tigers.
Here’s how Watson’s back-and-forth battle with the Crimson Tide went down in Tampa.
|2-14||Jordan Leggett||Shovel pass off fake sweep for 5|
|1-10||Artavis Scott||Screen pass right for 1|
|3-4||Mike Williams||Quick slant from left for 3; good break by Averett|
|2-10||Jordan Leggett||Quick slant from right for 8|
|3-2||Mike Williams||Quick slant from left for 6 and 1st down|
|3-3||Deon Cain||20-yard fly to left sideline, too high; Averett coverage|
|2-5||Deon Cain||40-yard deep ball to left sideline, too far; Averett coverage|
- WATSON’S TOTALS: 5-of-7 for 23 yards; 3 true carries for 9 yards
- Clemson’s attack plan from the beginning of the game was to hit Alabama quick. The Crimson Tide defensive front, when fresh, caused a lot of havoc up front, and the Tigers tried to keep that at bay by going with short passes from Watson.
- The first quarter was Alabama defensive back Anthony Averett’s time to shine. He stonewalled Mike Williams on a third-and-4 quick strike that set up a turnover on downs. Averett also covered Deon Cain well on Watson’s first two deeper passes of the game, which came late in the quarter.
- In the first quarter, Alabama’s secondary did a great job of keeping a lid on the coverage and making sure the Tigers couldn’t get loose after the catch.
Deshaun Watson is playing really well for someone with a grand total of zero open wide receivers
— HAPPY MOO YEAR (@edsbs) January 10, 2017
- The Crimson Tide also did a great job of keying on Watson during option plays. He had zero room to run early and took some tough hits early, which seemed to affect his accuracy in the first half.
- A bad snap caused Clemson’s first turnover of the game, but Alabama was unable to take advantage of the great field position late in the quarter.
|3-8||Jordan Leggett||10-yard out, too high|
|1-10||Hunter Renfrow||Quick slant from left for 9|
|3-1||Hunter Renfrow||Quick hitch on right side, too low; under pressure|
|2-6||Deon Cain||Quick screen pass on right side for 44 and 1st down|
|1-10||Deon Cain||20-yard fly on left sideline, too far; Averett coverage|
|2-10||Mike Williams||Quick slant from left side, too high|
|3-10||Jordan Leggett||20-yard seam pass on right for 26 and 1st down|
|1-10||Mike Williams||Quick screen on left side for 5|
|2-6||Mike Williams||10-yard sluggo for 21 and 1st down; Averett falls down|
|2-9||Artavis Scott||Pass out of bounds; hit by Anderson on release|
|1-10||Ray-Ray McCloud||Quick slant from left side is off target|
|3-6||Hunter Renfrow||20-yard out toward left sideline for 19 and 1st down|
|1-10||Hunter Renfrow||Short drag from right side tipped by Evans|
|2-15||N/A||Throw away; under pressure|
|3-15||Hunter Renfrow||Quick screen on right side for 3|
- WATSON’S TOTALS: 8-of-16 for 130 yards; 3 carries for 9 yards and 1 TD
- Early in the second quarter, Alabama continued to do a great job of keeping Watson contained in the pocket and keeping him uncomfortable.
- Something shifted, though, when Alabama gave up a 44-yard gain on a quick screen to Deon Cain. A few plays later, Watson found his versatile tight end Jordan Leggett for a crucial third-down conversion. Leggett had Alabama inside linebacker Reuben Foster in single coverage. The Tide only rushed three, giving Watson enough time to hit Leggett after he made a great move down the seam.
Bama brought 3 on the long pass to Leggett. https://t.co/FXEfLTxAtp
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 10, 2017
- Watson finally broke through on the ground, too, to put Clemson on the board for the first time. The Tigers used misdirection to free up Watson by sending Ray-Ray McCloud across the defense. That opened up things more for Watson to run a keeper to the left side. When Wayne Gallman threw a tough block and stumbled into another, Watson had enough room to navigate for the score.
Deshaun Watson puts Clemson on the board with a touchdown run pic.twitter.com/UiucQg2T7D
— Eric Rosenthal (@ericsports) January 10, 2017
- Alabama closed the first half well, though, on defense by getting a great third-down sack from Reuben Foster and some strong coverage downfield. Foster closed well to contain Watson and force a punt as the rest of the defense stayed in its lane. Watson had nowhere to escape. When the Tigers got the ball back, they didn’t have enough time to cut into the lead before halftime.
— DLineVids (@DLineVids) January 10, 2017
|2-7||Hunter Renfrow||5-yard stick on left for 8 and 1st down|
|1-10||Mike Williams||Quick slant from right side; Humphrey coverage|
|1-10||Deon Cain||15-yard back-shoulder throw to left for 14 and 1st down|
|1-10||Hunter Renfrow||Tunnel screen on right side for 9|
|2-7||Mike Williams||Quick hitch on right sideline for 6|
|3-1||Hunter Renfrow||3-yard stick on left is too low, dropped|
|1-10||Deon Cain||10-yard slant for 14 and 1st down|
|2-6||Jordan Leggett||5-yard in broken up by Fitzpatrick|
|3-6||Hunter Renfrow||5-yard in for 24 and touchdown|
|2-9||Wayne Gallman||Quick screen to right side for 13 and 1st down|
|2-10||Deon Cain||Tunnel screen to left side for 11 and 1st down|
|1-10||Artavis Scott||Miscommunication on back-shoulder throw|
|2-10||Deon Cain||10-yard back-shoulder throw to left for 12 and 1st down|
|1-10||Jordan Leggett||Quick in for 17 and 1st down|
|1-10||Artavis Scott||Quick screen on left side for 9|
- TOTAL: 11-15 for 137 and 1 TD; 5 carries for 27 yards
- Watson got into a rhythm in the second half by staying out of third-and-long situations. The lone third-down pass he threw that was longer than 1 yard to gain came on a touchdown to Hunter Renfrow. Watson delivered a perfect slant to Renfrow, who took advantage of two Alabama defenders running into each other — which would be a theme in the second half — to slip through for a score.
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) January 10, 2017
Wow. A little drive/shallow concept for the touchdown, formation into the boundary. Great execution
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) January 10, 2017
- Watson didn’t connect on many intermediate-to-long-range throws down the sideline until the fourth quarter. Instead, the Tigers elected to jab a Crimson Tide defense that progressively stayed on the field longer and longer after halftime. These quick plays and longer drives started adding up and Clemson did a great job of attacking the middle of the field, where it could win man-to-man matchups.
- Alabama’s defense continued to get after Watson. Ryan Anderson got great jumps off the snap all night to keep Watson contained.
Ryan Anderson is all about the hand usage, keeps lineman of his pads and hustles into the backfield https://t.co/W2EP1S4EhJ
— SEC Chalkboard (@SECchalkboard) January 10, 2017
- There also was the case of the helicopter tackle, as Watson showed real toughness to keep going through this crazy takedown.
Deshaun Watson ?? https://t.co/mMOx3n0jpE
— Football Is Life (@FootbaIl_Tweets) January 10, 2017
- Clemson started picking up some wins on the outside late in the third quarter, and it all started with Marlon Humphrey’s pass interference on the first play of Clemson’s drive after the O.J. Howard touchdown. The Tigers found more lanes on screen passes, which paved the way for another score.
Clemson's 177 yards after the catch tonight are already the most Alabama has allowed in a game this season.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 10, 2017
|2-G||Mike Williams||Quick fade on right side for 4 and touchdown|
|2-16||Hunter Renfrow||20-yard post is too high|
|3-16||Wayne Gallman||Safety valve for 7; under pressure|
|2-7||Artavis Scott||Quick slant is too far in front|
|3-7||Hunter Renfrow||8-yard curl for 8 and 1st down|
|1-10||Mike Williams||15-yard fly is too far; contact with Humphrey|
|2-10||Jordan Leggett||20-yard improv is off-target; flushed out of pocket|
|3-10||Jordan Leggett||20-yard wheel to right is dropped|
|1-10||Wayne Gallman||Quick swing to left side for 9|
|1-10||Jordan Leggett||10-yard wheel to left side for 17 and 1st down|
|1-10||Mike Williams||25-yard deep ball to right side for 26 and 1st down|
|1-10||Jordan Leggett||5-yard out to left sideline for 5|
|2-5||Mike Williams||20-yard jump ball to left sideline for 24 and 1st down|
|1-10||Artavis Scott||Tunnel screen on right side, lateral for 6|
|3-4||Hunter Renfrow||5-yard stick down middle for 6 and 1st down|
|1-10||Jordan Leggett||15-yard out to left sideline for 17 and 1st down|
|2-G||Jordan Leggett||Overshoots man in end zone|
|1-G||Hunter Renfrow||Quick out to right side for 2 and touchdown|
- WATSON’S TOTALS: 12-of-19 for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns; 5 carries for 28 yards
- Clemson’s first and last touchdowns of the fourth quarter came on plays that had some controversy. Early in the quarter, Watson takes advantage of Leggett and Minkah Fitzpatrick meeting on a crossing route. That opens the door for a fade to a wide-open Mike Williams.
— FanSportsClips (@FanSportsClips) January 10, 2017
- As Bud Elliott of SB Nation explains, the play isn’t technically illegal by the letter of the law. Marlon Humphrey initiates contact with Leggett in zero coverage, and Leggett sells it enough to look like he’s trying to run a route. When Fitzpatrick ran into him, it became easy for Williams to score.
- On the next drive, Alabama cools off Clemson’s momentum with a first-down sack from Rashaan Evans. The junior linebacker times the snap perfectly and shoots the A gap completely unblocked for the sack. Clemson is so far off schedule after this play that it has to punt a few snaps later.
Quick protection (OL going low), center still has time to set back & let nose slant away & redirect to LB. … https://t.co/B5oPZFFWKr
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 10, 2017
- Clemson had another quick drive on its next possession thanks to some good coverage, pressure and fortune. Watson threw three consecutive incompletions — a rarity for the Heisman finalist — with some deeper shots downfield. Williams tangled up with a perfectly positioned Humphrey on one, the pass rush was too great for another, and Leggett straight-up dropped a catchable third-down ball.
- After seven straight Alabama drives of 4 plays or fewer, the Crimson Tide defense looked gassed. While Alabama’s defense was a better one this season statistically than the one it had in 2015, it wasn’t quite as deep.
- Watson took some shots toward Williams in one-on-one coverage on the final two drives of the game, and they worked. Williams, a physical presence with a great catch radius, came up with two incredible catches down the stretch. Humphrey was in a great position, but he couldn’t do much with perfect connections from Watson to Williams.
— NFL Draft Insider (@NFLDraftInsider) January 10, 2017
Mike Williams, again. pic.twitter.com/venV4W31Cz
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 10, 2017
- The final touchdown pass was another smart call from the Clemson sideline. With seconds left and the national championship on the line, the Tigers went with another pick play against Alabama’s zero coverage. Referees let a lot of contact go throughout this game, and it was no different on the play to win it all.
Sky cam view of the go ahead TD for Clemson. Another lethal pick play. https://t.co/bdooLtEGwg
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 10, 2017