Deshaun Watson's historic performance unable to push Clemson to national title
Deshaun Watson did not disappoint.
The Clemson Tigers' true sophomore quarterback, a Heisman finalist who torched the school's record books in 2015, was as good as advertised in Glendale, Ariz., punishing Alabama's defense with his arm and his legs — the dual-threat option that's proven to be the occasional answer to Nick Saban's annual riddle. His title game numbers surpassed the likes of Vince Young's 2005 Rose Bowl gem. And still, the Tigers fell short.
Watson finished with 478 total yards and four touchdowns in the College Football Playoff's national championship game, posting 40 points against the nation's No. 1 defense, but he could not overcome a constant stream of defensive breakdowns and special teams gaffes. Alabama captured its fourth national title in seven years in non-traditional fashion. In the highest-scoring championship game in Saban's career, the Crimson Tide rattled off three scores of 50 or more yards, scored on a 95-yard Kenyan Drake kick return and turned the tables with a surprise onside kick.
Watson played well enough to win — just not well enough to negate that level of explosiveness.
"Going into this game, I was expecting to win. I thought we should have won. But like Coach Swinney said, there were a few plays that we didn't really capitalize on," said Watson, whose 478 yards of total offense broke Young's national championship record. "I missed some throws, we dropped some balls, and just had some missed miscues. Just some little things like that is going to really force yourself in a hole, and it's hard to beat a team like Alabama if you make those mistakes."
The national title game's overarching narrative was a two-way street.
Not only was Watson the best quarterback the Crimson Tide program had faced since Johnny Manziel — or perhaps even Cam Newton — but Alabama was the biggest test of the young quarterback's career. Given his performance, that particular script favored Clemson.
Even without two of his top three receivers, Mike Williams and Deon Cain, Watson, who became the first FBS member of the 4,000-1,000 Club, orchestrated a balanced attack throughout. Six different receivers caught three or more passes, including walk-on freshman Hunter Renfrow continuing his CFP breakout party with two touchdowns and reliable tight end Jordan Leggett posting 78 yards and a score. Alabama's stingy rush defense took away 1,500-yard rusher Wayne Gallman on the ground, but Watson & Co. got the sophomore running back involved in the screen game.
It was the exact type of performance the Tigers needed to contend.
Clemson allowed long touchdowns to Heisman winner Derrick Henry and tight end O.J. Howard in the early going, but the Tigers' wheels truly fell off in the fourth quarter. The recovered onside kick stole a possession away from an offense that was clicking. Howard doubled down on the ensuing drive with his second 50-yard touchdown. After Clemson answered with three points, Drake took the subsequent kickoff to the house. The Clemson defense played well for long stretches — pressuring Alabama QB Jake Coker and forcing negative plays — but the explosive plays and special teams nightmares were too much.
Of course, there's plenty to look forward to for Dabo Swinney's program.
The Tigers return the best quarterback in the country, many of his favorite targets, a 1,500-yard rusher and a few important pieces along the offensive line. The defense loses key pieces, but that didn't stop coordinator Brent Venables this past season. Swinney's staff is recruiting alongside the nation's elite programs and even if early NFL departures take their toll, this is a top-five program. The quarterback position can erase plenty of leftover flaws, and in some ways Monday night offered a final vindication of Watson's talent.
When Watson was asked where he needs to improve heading into his senior year, senior offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain interjcted a one-word answer: "Nowhere."
The sophomore capped his historic season with perhaps the best performance any college quarterback has ever had against a Saban-coached defense ... and he did it on the sport's biggest stage. There's just one final step Watson will set his sights on in 2016.