A heroic QB, a miraculous final drive, a dancing coach: Inside Clemson's (non-)upset of Alabama

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TAMPA, Fla. – He’s still celebrating, I guarantee it.

Whatever time you’re reading this on Jan. 10, 2017, Dabo Swinney is still smiling, still hugging, still talking, still reveling in Clemson’s incredible, 35-31 dethroning of Alabama in a College Football Playoff championship rematch – an all-time classic that was decided at the literal last second. He almost assuredly has not slept. He may or may not still be wearing the orange sweatshirt and khakis that were soaked in the postgame Gatorade bath, with grass stains on the right knee of the pants from being tackled to the Raymond James Stadium turf by members of his coaching staff.

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“How ’bout it?” Swinney chirped at a reporter walking by while the coach was waiting to appear on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” well after 1 a.m. “How ’bout it? Little ol’ Clemson!”

No, he has not stopped. There is no interrupting Dabo’s Clemson party. Heck, it may rage until next August.

A man who endured a difficult upbringing in a broken Alabama home danced with the national championship trophy like he was rocking a baby. He placed his hands on the shoulders of his ultra-clutch quarterback, Deshaun Watson, on the postgame podium and looked him in the eyes.

“We did it!” Swinney said to Watson. “We did it!”

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Then the 47-year-old coach hugged the guy whose last collegiate pass won the national title with one second left. He would hug Watson again and again in the early morning hours, along with dozens of other players and coaches and friends and family. Anyone in the massive throng of Clemson fans that descended here – outnumbering Alabama fans, which is virtually unheard of for a big game – might have gotten an embrace from Dabo.

This was a victory for happy coaching. This was a win that shows you do not have to be a joyless automaton to win it all. Coaching football has become so deadly serious that it was fair to wonder whether fun guys even belonged in the profession anymore.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and coach Dabo Swinney celebrate after winning the national title. (Getty
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and coach Dabo Swinney celebrate after winning the national title. (Getty

They do. Dabo is the proof that it can be done.

Swinney is the antithesis of the legendary coach he beat Monday night, Nick Saban. Where Saban expressed little more than grim satisfaction after his five national titles won, Swinney is an unchecked geyser of emotion. Nobody was capping his joy after this victory.

“The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight,” Swinney said, florid rhetoric pouring forth. “We saw the top of it last year, didn’t quite get there. Tonight we took that next step.”

Clemson took that step in wildly dramatic fashion, winning a game that will go down as one of the greats in college football history.

It drew instant comparisons to the Texas-USC Rose Bowl classic that capped the 2005 season, Vince Young driving the Longhorns for the victory in the final minute. Watson played the role of Young, willing the Tigers 68 yards against the greatest defense in America.

“Greatest man in the country,” Clemson receiver Mike Williams said of Watson. “We knew we had the greatest man in the country on our team.”

“Nerves of steel,” was offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s description of Watson.

“I knew Deshaun was built for the job,” said defensive lineman Carlos Watkins.

But this was a damn tough job. Watson had been battered all night by the ferocious Alabama defense. He took a shot to the head from linebacker Reuben Foster on the third play of the game, and at one point was sent in a helicopter spin on a scramble by Foster and Minkah Fitzpatrick – a play that ended in a brutal landing.

Still, Watson kept slinging, kept coming, kept applying the pressure to a rapidly fatiguing Alabama defense, leading the Tigers to a shocking 21 fourth-quarter points. (‘Bama had allowed just 32 fourth-quarter points all season before Clemson.)

“It seemed like we made enough plays to win,” said Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey. “And they’d come back. … I just feel bad, man. We didn’t finish.”

Watson was the ultimate finisher. He threw it 56 times and ran it 21 times, compiling 463 yards one year after gouging the Crimson Tide for 478. Saban will see No. 4 in his nightmares for years to come.

The last drive was the stuff of lore.

“Let’s be legendary,” Watson told his receiving corps before it started. “Let’s be great.”

They were.

It began simply enough, with a 5-yard pass to tight end Jordan Leggett. Then came a fly pattern to Williams, who used his athleticism and 6-foot-3 frame to leap over a defender and make the catch for 24 yards. Clemson threw in some razzle-dazzle, a hook-and-lateral pass that went for six yards. After a 1-yard Watson run, he threw a dart over the middle to hero Hunter Renfrow for a first down at the Alabama 26.

Watson spiked the ball to stop the clock with 19 seconds left. On second down he threw an out pattern to Leggett, who contorted his body to make a spectacular catch at the Alabama nine. After an incompletion, an interference call on Alabama’s Anthony Averett placed the ball on the 2-yard line.

But only six seconds remained. The Tigers had a chip-shot field goal to tie, and there was the risk of time running out and a crushing loss if Clemson ran one more play.

Swinney has a million slogans and sayings, but one of the most famous is this: Bring your own guts.

He brought the guts. The field-goal unit was not coming on the field – not yet. Swinney said he would have kicked to tie if the play with six seconds did not result in a touchdown – but there was no guarantee of having another play.

“We were playing to win,” Swinney said.

They won on a play that will leave Alabama fans fuming for decades. It was the second of two goal-line touchdown throws that came on picks or rubs.

The first one was early in the fourth quarter and was a blatant pick by Leggett to free Williams in the corner – it wasn’t flagged.

“My job is pretty much to set a pick but not set a pick,” Leggett said. “That’s illegal.”

As Humphrey noted, it’s only illegal if it’s called.

“There was no flag called,” he said, “so it’s a good play.”

The second pick/rub was more subtle by Artavis Scott, who drove his own defender in the way of defensive back Tony Brown to send Renfrow into the corner wide open. Watson delivered the ball to the former walk-on who arrived on campus as a 150-pound runt, and Renfrow’s heroic night ended by scoring the biggest touchdown in Clemson history.

“How about Hunter Renfrow, two years in a row?” Elliott said. “The most unlikely hero.

Renfrow came out of the woodwork in this game last year, shocking Alabama with a career-high seven catches and two touchdowns. Then he outdid himself this year, with a career-high 10 catches and two more TDs. He came into this game as Clemson’s sixth-leading receiver.

“It’s like I got knocked out in the fourth quarter,” Renfrow said, “and this is all a dream.”

Renfrow is following a familiar path, from walk-on to national champion. Dabo Swinney was that guy nearly 30 years earlier, a “crawl-on” as he put it at mighty Alabama who ended up being part of the Tide’s 1992 national title.

Alabama won that game by beating a seemingly invincible Miami team. This game was a much smaller upset, but still not what the oddsmakers saw coming (they made Alabama a six-point favorite).

Dabo, of course, always believed.

“There was no upset tonight,” he said. “That’s the last thing I told them when we left the locker room.”

When they got back to the locker room with the victory and the national title, the celebration really began. And it still hasn’t stopped.

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