Alabama outlasts Clemson to win NCAA football title

Story highlights

  • Alabama coach Nick Saban credits his players for making plays when most needed
  • The Crimson Tide earns fourth title in seven seasons, 14th NCAA football crown overall
  • Clemson was trying to be first FBS team to go 15-0

(CNN)There are 40 college football bowl games, and quite frankly, many of them this season were snoozers.

If you fell asleep during Monday night's college football championship game, well, we feel for you. You must have been really tired.
It was a classic, full of big numbers, big plays and special moments that swung momentum in a game that went back and forth.
    No. 2 Alabama won its fourth college football national title in seven seasons, defeating No. 1 Clemson 45-40 at Glendale, Arizona.
    It is the 14th NCAA national title for the Crimson Tide, which finished the season 14-1. The title is the fifth for Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who also won one at Louisiana State.
    "We didn't always play pretty in this game. It probably wasn't one of our best games when it just comes to flat execution," Saban said. "But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, it was probably as good as it gets. I think that's the kind of competitors that win championships, and that's probably why we're sitting here."
    The defeat prevented Clemson from being the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to finish a season 15-0.
    Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney called the game a slugfest and said the Tigers showed great heart.
    "But championship football is a game of a few plays, and that's really what this one came down to, just a few plays," he said.

    Big plays

    For much of the night the game was a highlight reel battle between Deshaun Watson of Clemson and Alabama's Derrick Henry, two of the three Heisman Trophy finalists this season.
    But in the second half, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard pulled off three big plays that thrust Alabama to the victory. Howard scored on a 53-yard pass in the third quarter and a 51-yarder in the fourth quarter. And with Alabama leading by five at 38-33, Howard took a swing pass for 63 yards to the Clemson 14.
    The Tide scored its final TD six play later.
    Coming into the contest, Howard, a junior, only had two touchdowns in his career.
    "Initially it felt like a dream," he said after the game, "and I tried to tell everybody to wake me up because I thought it wasn't real. It was just a great feeling to get in the end zone again."

    Onside kick was turning point

    It was supposed to be a tough, defensive struggle, but each defense cracked at just the wrong times.
    Clemson, sparked by Watson's dazzling running and often precise passing, had 550 yards of offense. Alabama had 473 yards.
    Still, two of the most crucial plays in the game came on special teams for Alabama.
    With the score 24-24 and 10:34 remaining, the Tide's Adam Griffith surprised the Tigers with an onside kick that was plucked out of the air by Marlon Humphrey.
    "I made the decision to do it because the score (was tied) and we were tired on defense, and weren't doing a great job of getting them stopped," Saban said. "And I felt like if we didn't do something ... we wouldn't have a chance to win."
    Howard caught a TD pass two plays later to give the Tide 14 points in 49 seconds.
    Clemson answered with a quick drive that led to a field goal, but Alabama's Kenyan Drake took the kickoff at the 5.
    His path appeared to be blocked at about the 20, but then he made a sharp left turn, outraced the Tigers to the other side of the field and sped to a 95-yard return for six points.

    Top players, top performances

    Watson was genius all night. Several times Alabama's highly lauded defense had him trapped, absolutely. But Watson kept finding a way to scamper free and get a first down or big gain with his feet.
    The sophomore quarterback, who was third in the Heisman voting, was on point most of the night with his passes. Watson finished 30-for 44 and 405 yards with four touchdowns.
    "Coach Swinney said, there was a few plays that we didn't really capitalize on, and I missed some throws, we dropped some balls, and just had some missed miscues," Watson said. "Just some little things like that is going to really force yourself in a hole, and it's hard to beat a team like Alabama if you make those mistakes."
    Alabama's Henry lugged the ball 36 times, totaling 158 yards. He had three touchdowns.
    Monday's game, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, pitted the winners of the semifinal games in the second College Football Playoff.
    Last year, the four-team playoff replaced the Bowl Championship Series in which the top two teams were selected to play in the final game. Ohio State won the inaugural playoff championship game, routing Oregon 42-20.