Alabama keeps the dynasty rolling, beating Clemson in CFP thriller for fourth national title in seven years

The trademark defense that Alabama rode to the College Football Playoff championship game did not dominate on Monday night against Clemson.

Turns out, it did not need to.

The Crimson Tide put on an offensive show and the special teams overwhelmed in a 45-40 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium that gave Coach Nick Saban his fourth national title at Alabama in seven years.

"We didn't always play pretty in this game," Saban said. "It probably wasn't one of our best games when it just comes to flat execution. But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, it was probably as good as it gets."

Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry rushed into the Alabama record book with 158 yards and three touchdowns.

Quarterback Jake Coker and tight end O.J. Howard played pitch-and-catch, combining for two long touchdown pass plays and another that nearly resulted in a score.

And the special teams lived up to their name: Alabama blocked a field-goal attempt and perfectly executed a daring onside kick, and Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.

It all added up to what Alabama will claim as its 16th national title.

The Crimson Tide (14-1) survived an electric performance by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Heisman finalist passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 73 yards.

"There were a few plays we didn't really capitalize on, and I missed some throws," Watson said. "We dropped some balls and just had some miscues . . . and it's hard to beat a team like Alabama if you make those mistakes."

Watson's performance was not good enough to beat an Alabama team that was on a mission after losing to eventual champion Ohio State in the semifinals last season.

Saban had said that the Crimson Tide had "sort of participated in the game" and wanted to "make a statement and do something special."

The Crimson Tide did that and gave Saban, who won a Bowl Championship Series championship at LSU in 2003, his fifth national title, one fewer than legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant.

Clemson (14-1) was trying to win its first title since 1981 and to become the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to win 15 games in a season.

The Tigers sacked Coker five times and held several leads but could not hold off the Crimson Tide.

"There's no doubt we'll be back," Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. "It won't be 34 years before we're going to be back, I guarantee you that."

From the outset, the game was a showcase for Heisman winner Henry and Heisman finalist Watson.

Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had utilized Henry largely as a decoy in the Tide's 38-0 Cotton Bowl victory over Michigan State.

But Henry ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns in 20 carries in the first half. Defensive back Eddie Jackson set up one of the touchdowns with an interception.

Watson passed for two touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the score tied, 14-14, and set the stage for an exciting finish.

Coker's 53-yard touchdown pass to Howard early in the third quarter put Alabama ahead, but a field goal and Wayne Gallman's touchdown run gave Clemson the lead, 24-21.

An Alabama field goal tied it, 24-24, before the game's key play — the onside kick.

Adam Griffith kicked off short and into the air toward the Clemson sideline. Alabama's Marlon Humphrey leaped and caught the ball to give the Tide possession.

"I felt at the time we needed to so something to change the momentum of the game," Saban said of the decision to try what he called a "pop" kick. "If we didn't get it, they'd have got the ball on the 45- or 50-yard line, so it's not really like it would have been the end of the world, but it was worth the risk I felt."

Two plays later, Coker hit Howard for a 51-yard touchdown and a 31-24 lead.

"A huge momentum play," Swinney said of the kick.

Howard caught five passes for 208 yards with two touchdowns, and afterward said, "Coach Saban is going to go down as one of the greatest of all time."

Clemson answered Howard's second touchdown with a field goal to cut the lead to four points, but Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.

The teams traded touchdowns and Clemson pulled to within 45-40 on Watson's final scoring pass, but the onside kick went out of bounds.

The victory marked the end of defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's run at Alabama. He can now turn his full attention to beating Alabama as head coach at Georgia.

Kiffin fully resurrected a career that hit its low point when he was fired by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden after a 2013 loss at Arizona State.

Alabama rebounded from a loss to Mississippi to win nine straight games heading into the SEC championship game against Florida, and dispatched the Gators to advance again to the semifinals.

Alabama was matched against Michigan State, where Saban coached before going to LSU and Alabama.

The Crimson Tide's dominating 38-0 rout put Saban in position to win his fifth title.

Twitter: @latimesklein

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 12, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Creme de la crim - Saban's Tide dynasty makes it four titles in seven years, outlasting Tigers in a thriller" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe