GLENDALE, Ariz. — No. 2 Alabama beat No. 1 Clemson 45-40 Monday night in the wildest national championship game since Texas beat USC 41-38 for the 2005 title in the Rose Bowl.
Here are five takeaways from the game that gave Alabama its fourth national championship in seven seasons and the 16th in school history.
1. Where have you been, O.J. Howard?
That is the question that Alabama's fans have been asking for three years. Based on his physical skills, it seems he should be more of a factor in the Alabama offense.
Well, the Alabama faithful finally got their wish as Howard, a junior from Prattville, Ala., caught five passes for 208 yards and two TDs, and almost every one of those yards meant something. With the score tied at 24, Howard took advantage of a busted coverage and hauled in a 51-yard touchdown pass. After Clemson cut Alabama's margin to 38-33, he simply outran the Tigers' secondary for a 63-yard gain that set up Alabama's clinching touchdown.
Let's put it this way: Howard made a lot of money Monday night if he decides to turn pro, which he most certainly will.
"O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long," Tide coach Nick Saban conceded after the game. "Sometimes he was open and we just didn't get him the ball, but I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he can do."
2. Derrick Henry simply has nothing left to prove.
After being "held" to 78 yards on 20 carries in a semifinal win over Michigan State, Henry made it clear he wanted to be more involved against Clemson. And he was.
Henry carried the ball 36 times for 158 yards and scored three touchdowns, including a 50-yard scamper for a score in the first quarter.
Henry, who surely will turn pro, finishes as Alabama's career rushing leader with 3,591 yards. He also exits as the SEC's single-season rushing leader and the first back in league history to go over 2,000 yards. He had 2,219 this season, fifth-most in a season in FBS history.
"This one feels so good because we worked so hard to get here," Henry said. "This was a great game and we were going to find a way to win."
3. Saban knew Alabama was going to try an onside kick.
During film study, Saban said Tide coaches noticed that Clemson's kick receiving team tended to "pinch" their alignment inward, leaving gaps near the sidelines.
"It was there and the way that we executed our onside kick I pretty much thought it would be there whenever we wanted it," he said. "It is something that we work on practice every day."
Saban kept that option in his hip pocket until the game was tied at 24 with 10:24 left. Saban said his defense looked tired. It was. And the reason was Clemson's Deshaun Watson, who was brilliant with 405 yards passing and another 73 rushing.
"He is a great player," Saban said.
"He's the best player in the country," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "There can't be any doubt about that."
So Saban rolled the dice. Adam Griffith kicked the ball perfectly in the open spot of Clemson's return team and Marlon Humphrey caught it to give Alabama possession at the 50. Two plays later, Howard went 51 yards for a score. The move completely changed the game, and Alabama would not trail again.
"If we don't change the momentum we probably don't win the game," Saban said.
4. Alabama scores its 10th non-offensive touchdown.
Even after Alabama took the 31-24 lead, Clemson would not go away. The Tigers kicked a 31-yard field goal with 7:47 left to cut it to 31-27. The way Clemson was moving the ball, Alabama knew it needed a score.
Kenyan Drake, whose career has been short-circuited by injuries, then took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to make it 38-27.
It was the 10th time this season Alabama scored a non-offensive touchdown (four punt returns, four interception returns, a fumble return and a kickoff return).
"Kenyan has been through a lot and we thought he would have a tremendous breakout season," Saban said. "When the season started, I didn't know who would be more productive, Derrick Henry or Kenyan Drake. He's really done a great job for us in whatever his role has been."
5. Finally, let's talk about Saban's legacy.
Now that Saban has his fifth national title (2003 at LSU, and 2009, '11, '12 and '15 at Alabama), the discussions will start on his place in history.
Saban is alone in second place in national championships, behind Alabama's Bear Bryant, who won six national titles between 1961-1979.
It was inevitable that the "L" word would come up in the post-game. Saban said his memories went back to his first game as Michigan State's coach in 1995, against Tom Osborne and Nebraska.
"We got beat like 56-7 (actually 50-10), and I had been in the NFL for four years and I'm saying we may never win a game as a college coach," Saban said. "And I remember running across the field and Tom Osborne said, 'You're not as bad as you think.' So that's the first time that comes to my mind."
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
(Feature photo by MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS)
© 2016, Jody Horton. All rights reserved.
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