TAMPA, Fla. — At Clemson there has been “The Catch” – Jerry Butler’s twisting, leaping catch to beat rival South Carolina in 1977. Then there is “The Catch II” – Rod Gardner’s 50-yard reception in the final seconds of the 2000 South Carolina game to set up Aaron Hunts’ game-winning field goal.
Those two plays are considered two of the more significant moments in Clemson football history. However, Monday’s final drive in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game pushed both of those to the side.
With 2:07 left on the clock, following Jalen Hurts’ 30-yard scamper to give Alabama a three-point lead, the Tigers drove 68 yards in two minutes in nine plays. It was capped by Deshaun Watson’s two-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left in the game as the Tigers rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Crimson Tide, 35-31, and win the program’s first national championship since 1981.
It is simply known at Clemson as “The Drive.”
“We never had any doubt we were going to score,” center Jay Guillermo said afterwards. “I told all of my guys, our front five, that ‘guys we are going to score.’ It is going to happen. We are going to win this football game. It’s that belief. We started rolling and we hit it.”
Clemson, which became the first team in 98 tries to beat a Nick Saban coached team when going into the fourth quarter down by double digits, opened “The Drive” with a five-yard pass to Leggett. On the next play, Watson found Mike Williams, who made a circus-like catch, down the left side for 24 yards to the Alabama 39.
On the next play, Clemson used a little trickery as Artavis Scott caught the pass and then flipped it backwards to running back Wayne Gallman, moving the football to the 33. After a one-yard run to the 32 by Gallman, Watson hit Renfrow for a six-yard gain on third-and-three, moving the ball to the Alabama 26.
With 19 seconds to go, Watson fired a pass to Leggett’s left shoulder as the senior made a twisting grab to snag the ball for a first down at the 19-yard line with 14 seconds to play. A play later, Williams drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone, placing the ball at the two-yard line with six seconds to play.
“We were not playing for overtime. We were going for the win. That’s our mentality,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
Swinney said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, who knew Alabama liked to go to man-to-man coverage when backed inside their five-yard line, was adamant Clemson run a rub route, where Artavis Scott cuts inside and tries to get in the way of the defender covering Renfrow, allowing him to break open in the flats.
So as Watson rolled to his right, Renfrow was wide open for the winning-touchdown.
“Never in a million years did I think I would catch the game-winning pass,” Renfrow said. “It’s been such a journey for me. It’s like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream.
“Credit to – I think my faith in God really got me through it, just passing up the money to go to App State and come and play for a guy like Coach Swinney, and a quarterback like Deshaun is pretty special.”
The whole drive was special. It was just 68 yards, but it meant so much more. Watson said, even before he threw the game-winner to Renfrow, he just enjoyed the moment and knew what was about to happen. He knew history was being made, and he and his Clemson teammates and coaches were right in the middle of it.
“I just kind of slowed down the moment,” Watson said. “I just kind of smiled to myself and just knew because I knew that we were inside the five and I knew they were going to play straight cover zero man, and I knew if (Scott) makes his block and get the little pick, Renfrow was going to get in the end zone.
“I kind of smiled, and I knew before I even snapped the ball it was going to be a touchdown. All I had to do was just get the ball to him. I slowed down the moment, everyone made their blocks and did their part, and I did my part, and we pulled it out.”
And now they are all National Champions.