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Clemson tide knocks off Alabama for College Football Playoff title

Clemson scored the go-ahead touchdown with one second left on the clock to win, 35-31. (Jan. 10, 2017)

In the end, it seemed so simple. So easy.

Deshaun Watson, the do-everything quarterback from Clemson, rolled to his right, glanced upfield and flipped a two-yard pass to a wide-open receiver in the end zone.

Simple and easy. But that one little play accomplished so much.

It allowed the second-ranked Tigers to finally defeat their nemesis, as they outlasted top-ranked and undefeated Alabama, 35-31, for the College Football Playoff national championship on Monday night.

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It stopped the Crimson Tide’s run at back-to-back titles and delayed Coach Nick Saban’s historic march toward a record-tying sixth career championship.

Mostly, it gave Watson — who lost a heartbreaker to Alabama in this game last year and has twice fallen short of winning the Heisman Trophy — the ultimate victory that he craved.

“Let’s be legendary,” he recalled telling his teammates on the final drive of the game. “Let’s be great.”

His short scoring pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining on the scoreboard at Raymond James Stadium might have been the only way to end a game like this.

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A roller-coaster ride. A sleepy first half that exploded into a fourth-quarter frenzy.

“It was just an up-and-down game, but that’s football,” Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. “You’ve got to play for 60 minutes.”

College football had waited for this rematch since last January, when Alabama executed a daring onside kick in the fourth quarter to spark a 45-40 victory.

This time around, it took a while for the action to get rolling. The first half  saw a few good plays, a few missed chances and Clemson scoring on a crucial eight-yard touchdown run by Watson in the second quarter to stay within range, down 14-7 at halftime.

“I knew they wouldn’t quit,” a tearful Coach Dabo Swinney said of his players.

The Crimson Tide might have hoped for something orderly and subdued — they brought the nation’s best defense to Florida, so a low-scoring affair would have suited them perfectly.

Also, they were relying on a freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, and had abruptly switched offensive coordinators, replacing Lane Kiffin with offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian barely a week before kickoff.

Hurts wouldn’t have the best of nights, completing 13 of 31 passes for 131 yards.

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To make matters worse for Alabama, star running back Bo Scarbrough, who rushed for  93 yards and scored both of those early touchdowns on long runs, left with an injury midway through the third quarter.

Not that Saban would use any of it as an excuse.

“Well, I think our guys played really, really hard,” he said. “I think they made some fantastic catches and some great throws and catches, and the last couple drives when they had the ball, and you know, we just didn’t make a play when we needed to.”

For all the challenges his team faced, the favored Crimson Tide looked as if they might prevail in the third quarter.

After throwing numerous short screens to their receivers, they faked another one and had tight end Howard peel away from his block to race down the sideline.

Howard, who had haunted Clemson with three long plays last year, hauled in Hurts’ pass to rumble 68 yards to the end zone. The score was 24-14 and the track meet was on.

Clemson’s best chance for winning rested with Watson and an offense that was capable of amassing big yardage, and featured a steady running back in Wayne Gallman and an NFL-caliber receiver in Mike Williams.

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It was Williams who caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Watson with 14 minutes left to close the gap to 24-21. With Hurts looking shaky — his coaches stuck to a cautious passing attack but he could not seem to connect — Clemson finally took a 28-24 lead on a short Gallman run with 4:38 remaining.

It seemed like enough to win. It wasn’t.

“We had to stay patient and keep working hard,” Howard said. “Just trust our offense.”

With time running out, Hurts scrambled for his life, chucking a pass over the middle to keep the drive going. A lateral-and-pass put Alabama in scoring position and the young quarterback scrambled the final 30 yards, racing up the middle to give his team a 31-28 lead with 2:07 left.

Just enough time for Watson, who ended up completing 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns.

“I just smiled,” he said.

The junior quarterback threw to a leaping Williams. He threw to tight end Jordan Leggett, who made a diving, reaching catch.

The Tigers, who outgained Alabama 511 yards to 376, even pulled a hook-and-ladder play out of a game plan from the 1950s.

“It was calm,” Watson said. “No one panicked.”

Time slowed on the final play from the two-yard line and Alabama gave him the “straight cover zero man” defense he expected to see. 

After the final touchdown pass, after Clemson recovered an onside kick to seal the victory, Swinney hugged Watson and whispered in his ear.

“I said ‘I love you,’” the coach recalled saying. “‘Man, this is what you came here to do.’”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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