When Jalen Hurts raced 30 yards up the middle of the field for a touchdown with 2:07 to play, giving Alabama a three-point lead, Deshaun Watson just smiled.
“They left too much time on the clock,” Watson said he thought to himself on the Clemson sideline just before leading the Tigers on a drive for the ages in a 35-31 victory, clinching the program’s first national championship since 1981.
ESPN analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Joey Galloway have both said if there was one game they had to win and they had to pick a quarterback who could go win the game for them, they would both choose Deshaun Watson.
It’s Watson’s ability to stay calm under pressure. He never gets lost in the moment. No moment is too big for him.
Such was the case earlier in the season, when the Tigers trailed at Florida State by five points with 3:23 left on the clock.
Earlier in the FSU game, Watson had thrown two interceptions and just seemed a little off from his normal self. But when it was crutch time and Clemson needed one last scoring drive, Deshaun was Deshaun. He was not nervous, he was not too high, he was not too low … he was just calm. He was ready to lead his team down the field and get the win.
“He handles adversity better than most other people,” Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said. “He just goes out there and moves on to the next play. He just brings a whole different kind of confidence to the offense and helps us play easier, play with calmness. We can just chill and relax and go out there and play.
“It was stressful (being down), but we knew we were going to win no matter what.”
Without even blinking, Watson led Clemson on a five-play, 75-yard drive which he capped with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Leggett for the winning score.
“I feel blessed to have the best quarterback in the country. Obviously, the media and other people are going to say certain things. But I believe he is the best player in the country, and he has unbelievable poise and unbelievable knowledge,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
The win in Tallahassee on Oct. 29 was the third time this season Watson led the Tigers on a game-winning drive at the end of regulation or overtime. He also threw a winning touchdown pass to Leggett—this time for 31 yards—in Clemson’s come-from-behind win over Louisville on Oct. 1, and threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Artavis Scott to beat NC State in overtime on Oct. 15.
“It honestly does not surprise me,” said Michael Perry, Watson’s quarterback coach in high school. “He obviously is very talented. God blessed him tremendously, but when you put his talent with that work ethic, that’s what makes him what he is. I guarantee you right now, that kid is in his room looking at film. There is no doubt.”
Watson’s biggest fan
Watson has hundreds of thousands of fans, but his biggest fan might reside in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who recruited Watson when he played at Gainesville High School, said prior to the start of the College Football Playoff in 2016 that if he had input into the Heisman Trophy process that year, he would have given his vote to the Tigers’ star quarterback.
Saban saw firsthand how good of a quarterback Watson is when he is at his best. Watson completed 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns in the 2016 CFP National Championship Game. He also rushed for 73 yards against the Alabama defense, which came into the contest with the best defense in the country.
“I think he is a fantastic competitor and a great player and played a fantastic game against us. I don’t get to see him all that much during the season, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guy. He did a fabulous job,” Saban said.
Though he is a fan, Watson was the last guy Saban wanted to see with the ball in his hands with the national championship on the line.
“Deshaun Watson, I’ve said this all week long, is probably the most dynamic player in college football, maybe the best player in college football relative to what he does for his team,” Saban said in the week leading up to the championship game. “A combination of his ability to pass the ball accurately, execute their offense in the passing game, as well as his physical ability to run the ball and add quarterback runs to their whole system of very good players, whether it’s running backs or wide receivers, and he can utilize all the talent on their team because of his skill set.”
Saban could not put his finger on just one thing Watson does well because he does so many things well.
“Sometimes you look at an athletic quarterback, and you think, well, this guy is going to run around and extend plays all the time,” the Alabama head coach said. “He does that extremely well when he needs to. But that’s not his style of play. He reads the defense. He gets the ball out of his hand quickly. He does a really good job of reading what you’re playing on defense and tries to take advantage of it relative to where he needs to go with the ball.
“I think trying to disguise things is important, but I also think not allowing him to extend plays, which is where they made some big plays on us a year ago where the defense breaks down because of his athleticism and then he takes advantage of it.”
An uncommon quarterback
Perry remembers how calm Watson was the day he and his Gainesville teammates played Sandy Creek High School in the quarterfinal round of the state playoffs in 2011. Sandy Creek had a 41-game winning streak and was the favorite to win another state championship.
Watson was a sophomore, and he did not care.
“He just played phenomenal. It was like he was a man amongst boys and he was just a sophomore going against a state power,” Perry said. “They had won 41 games in a row, and he just ends it just like that. He just led us up and down the field.”
Watson completed 23-of-32 passes that night for 169 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 129 yards in the 35-21 victory.
“He was not rattled. He never gets rattled,” Perry said.
And that is what makes Watson uncommon among a world of common quarterbacks.
“That’s why he is such a good quarterback because that’s what you have to have. With the quarterback position it can be an up and down roller-coaster, but Deshaun is just as steady as he can be,” Perry said.
That was never more obvious than in the national championship game. Here Watson was, down three points to an Alabama team that had won 26 straight games, while going against the best defense in the country, 68 yards away from the end zone and with 2:01 was showing on the clock.
“We practice two-minute all the time, and we prepare for moments like this all the time,” said Watson, who totaled four touchdowns and threw for a then championship game record 420 yards on 36-of 56-passes. “We had so many situations throughout the season where we did it before halftime and at the end of the game. So, it was just another opportunity for us to show what we’re about, just on a bigger stage.”
Ninety-seven times in Nick Saban’s career, his teams have entered the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead, and all 97 times they walked away with a victory.
That was the case in the 2017 National Championship Game. Alabama, thanks to a 68-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to tight end O.J. Howard, the Crimson Tide had a 24-14 lead entering the final quarter.
However, that quickly changed when Watson found Mike Williams in the end zone from four yards out, cutting the lead to three at 24-21 with 14:00 to play.
On Clemson’s next possession, it took the lead for the first time, 28-24, as Wayne Gallman went in from a yard out to cap a six-play, 88-yard drive that took 1:55 off the clock with 4:38 left in the game.
The lead was short lived as Alabama got a great third down pass from Hurts to ArDarius Stewart and then three plays later he sprinted into the end zone from 30 yards out, setting up the greatest drive in Clemson history or possibly in the history of college football.
“God put us there for a reason, and we just went out there, and I told the guys, ‘Hey, let’s be great, let’s be special,” Watson said. “My offensive line gave me time, the receivers made big, big plays, and I just pretty much had the easy part, just getting the ball in the direction of the receivers and let them go out there and make the plays.”
Clemson opened “The Drive” with a five-yard pass to Leggett. On the next play, Watson found 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 a 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 Hunter 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,” 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 to 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, along with his Clemson teammates and coaches, was 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.”
After coming up short in the 2016 CFP Title Game to Alabama, Clemson’s players and coaches made a pack at the start of the 2016 season that if they got back to the championship game, they would do all they could to make sure no one left with any regrets.
When Renfrow caught the game-winner from Watson with one second to go, Clemson had accomplished its mission … they were National Champions.
“It was an awesome feeling, and it was a great way to finish off the game,” Watson said.
Clemson fans, now is the time to support the local businesses.
A great gift for any Tiger fan. Just one of many great items available from Clemson Variety & Frame