GLENDALE, Arizona (AP) — Alabama needed it all to win the toughest national title game it had ever played during the Nick Saban dynasty. All of its power. All of its speed.
Even one gutsy trick.
Derrick Henry, O.J. Howard and Kenyan Drake hit No. 1 Clemson with huge plays, and Alabama outlasted the dynamic play of dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson to win the College Football Playoff championship 45-40 on Monday night.
The Crimson Tide (14-1) won its three previous championship game appearances in runaway fashion. This game was an instant classic — and it turned on maybe the boldest call of Saban’s career.
With 10:34 left in the fourth quarter and Alabama having just tied the game with a short field goal, Saban took a gamble to try to keep the ball away from Watson and the Tigers. He called for a high-bouncing onside kick that Tide defensive Marlon Humphrey caught over the shoulder at midfield.
Moments later, Alabama also took back the lead. For the second time, Clemson (14-1) lost track of the tight end Howard in coverage and Jake Coker hit him in stride deep for a 51-yard touchdown to make it 31-24 with 9:45 left.
Clemson and Watson proved to be every bit Alabama’s equal. The Tigers just kept coming.
Watson led Clemson to a field goal to make it 31-27, and boom! Another Alabama big play. Kenyan Drake broke free and streaked down the sideline for a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown.
Watson threw his third touchdown pass to make it 38-33 with 4:40 left, and then Alabama went back to its workhorse Heisman Trophy winner. Derrick Henry plunged into the end zone for his third touchdown of the game to make it 45-33 with 1:07 left.
Watson threw another touchdown pass, but would not get another chance. Clemson’s onside kick went out of bounds. Coker took a knee and Alabama’s dynasty was very much alive and well.
The Crimson Tide (14-1) became the second team in college football’s poll era, dating back to 1936, to win four titles in seven seasons.
Alabama joins Notre Dame, which won four titles from 1943-49. For Saban, it is his fifth national championship — four in his nine seasons at Alabama — leaving him only one short of former Tide coach Bear Bryant for the most all-time.
Watson gave the Tide all it could handle, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns.
AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org