How Clemson Won the National Championship, Drive by Drive

Here’s how Clemson beat Alabama, 44-16, in the national championship game, drive by drive:

1st Half: Slow Start for Clemson

Clemson got the ball first but the Tigers went absolutely nowhere, gaining 3 yards before settling for a punt. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s freshman quarterback, threw a pair of incompletions on the drive, with his attempt to Hunter Renfrow on 3rd-and-7 sailing well out of the wide receiver’s reach.

Alabama now takes over looking to get something started.

Clemson 7, Alabama 0: Clemson’s Defense Gets the Jump

In a shocking turn of events, Alabama looked to be moving the ball early in its first drive but A.J. Terrell stepped in front of Tua Tagovailoa’s third pass of the game, intercepting and returning it 44 yards for a touchdown.

Before the interception, Tagovailoa had started the game 2 for 2 for 20 yards with a picture-perfect 12-yard pass to DeVonta Smith that had gotten the Crimson Tide a first down.

Clemson 7, Alabama 7: Tagovailoa Throws a Bomb to Tie Game

Tua Tagovailoa did not show any ill effects of his pick-six on the previous drive, connecting with Jerry Jeudy for a thrilling 62-yard touchdown pass with nearly 50 of it coming in the air on a perfect pass from the Heisman Trophy runner-up.

With the extra-point, the game is now tied 7-7, with only 1:15 of clock time elapsing between the two scores.

Damien Harris got the drive started with a 3-yard run and then picked up a first down with a 10-yard scamper.

With the run established, Tagovailoa dropped back and let one rip to his sophomore wide receiver who had 1,176 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

Clemson 14, Alabama 7: Etienne Helps Tigers Retake Lead

In a wild start to this game, Clemson answered Alabama’s score with a 75-yard drive that took just four plays and 1 minutes 30 seconds, with Travis Etienne punching the ball into the end zone from 17 yards out, running right through Alabama’s vaunted defense.

The Tigers now lead, 14-7.

Clemson started its second offensive drive with Trevor Lawrence’s third incompletion of the game. On second down he connected with Justin Ross, but had that completion wiped away by a tripping penalty on John Simpson, an offensive lineman.

An 8-yard pass to Trevion Thompson served as Lawrence’s first official completion of the day, but it was the follow-up that showed how special Lawrence can be. On 3rd-and-14, with a punt seeming likely, Lawrence found Tee Higgins for a 62-yard catch-and-run that put Alabama squarely on its heels.

On the next play Etienne, who finished seventh in Heisman voting, got his team the lead, rushing to his left and bowling his way into the end zone.

Clemson 14, Alabama 13: Tide Roll Right Back

Najee Harris put Alabama on the goal line and Tua Tagovailoa executed a nice play-action fake to set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to Hale Hentges.

Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, who have struggled with extra-points all season, Joseph Bulovas had his attempt hit the upright and fall back onto the field, which left Alabama trailing 14-13.

Alabama had started its drive with a 7-yard run by Josh Jacobs and then lost a yard on a screen pass to Irv Smith thanks to a terrific tackle by K’von Wallace.

Once again, Tagovailoa responded well to pressure, with his third down pass to DeVonta Smith connecting for 15 yards and a first down.

An 11-yard pass to DeVonta Smith gave Alabama another first down and that let Tagovailoa be aggressive, throwing deep to Irv Smith for a 21-yard gain.

Alabama gave the ball to Najee Harris, a sophomore who averaged 6.7 yards a carry this season, and let the speedster take them 20 yards on three runs, with the third one initially being ruled a touchdown before it was determined that he was down at the one-half-yard line.

Tagovailoa then faked a handoff and found Hentges wide-open in the end zone for the score.

Marc Tracy: Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ran way out onto the field yelling for a holding call on that 9-yard Alabama run that set up the touchdown, and then kept yelling at the sideline judge nearest him. He’s a passionate guy but we rarely see him that irate.

Hurray for Defense!

A drive finally ended without any scoring.

Trevor Lawrence had his first pass of the drive broken up with a nice defensive play, and then Travis Etienne, on a run up the middle, was wrapped up by a pack led by Quinnen Williams for a 4-yard loss.

Another pass attempt to Hunter Renfrow fell incomplete and Clemson was forced to punt.

Alabama 16, Clemson 14: Tigers’ Goal-Line Stand Leads to FG

Just 42 seconds into the second quarter, Alabama took a 16-14 lead with a 25-yard field goal from Joseph Bulovas.

Alabama had started the drive on its own 48-yard line and immediately began picking up yardage in huge chunks.

Tua Tagovailoa connected with Jerry Jeudy for a 12-yard reception, Najee Harris raced up the middle for 13 yards and then Tagovailoa found Jeudy again, once again for 12 yards.

Damien Harris ran three times for 9 yards, and then on 4th-and-1 from Clemson’s 6-yard line, Alabama rolled the dice by having Joshua Jacobs come in at running back. Their top touchdown scorer on the ground plowed his way to the 2-yard line.

Williams then returned, running it up the middle, but was swallowed up at the 1-yard line.

A false-start penalty backed the Crimson Tide up to the 6-yard line, and while Tagovailoa got them back to the 3 with a short pass to Henry Ruggs, a shovel pass to Williams proved fruitless when Clemson sniffed it out immediately, with Austin Bryant wrapping Williams up for a loss.

That sent out Bulovas for the field goal attempt and his kick, which was low and to the right, did just make it through the uprights, helping make up for his failed extra point.

Clemson 21, Alabama 16: Easy Drive Leads to Tigers’ Lead

Clemson needed just six plays to take the lead back, with Travis Etienne running the ball in from the 1-yard line.

Clemson started the drive by getting a quick 15 yards thanks to a pass-interference call against Alabama’s Saivion Smith.

A screen pass to Tavien Feaster looked like it might go for negative yardage, but Feaster made a few nice moves and then raced for a 26-yard gain.

Trevor Lawrence tried to scramble on first down and while he got 1 yard, he paid for it by being wrenched awkwardly to the ground by his shoulders and head.

Feaster ran the ball for 4 yards and then Lawrence recovered nicely from the big hit with a 14-yard connection with Tee Higgins.

With a 1st-and-goal from Alabama’s 5-yard line, Etienne got the Tigers to the 1 with a nice second-effort on a run in which he used a second effort to nearly power his way through a crowd and into the end zone.

Etienne’s next run was nowhere near as dramatic — he ran the ball in without being touched.

Clemson Intercepts Tua Tagovailoa

Alabama was rewarded for boldness on a 4th down run, but a deep pass by Tua Tagovailoa later in the drive proved too large of a risk, as the quarterback threw his second interception of the day.

Alabama’s offense had started things off with three runs by Josh Jacobs for a combined 9 yards, with the big running back just barely falling shy of picking up a first down. Despite being at their own 35-yard line, the Crimson Tide went for it on 4th-and-1 and Jacobs fought his way through the line for a 3-yard gain and a first down.

Jacobs ran two more times for a combined 19 yards, and the new set of downs may have emboldened Tagovailoa, who threw deep, but well beyond the reach of any of his receivers, with the ball settling easily into Trayvon Mullen’s hands for the interception.

Clemson 28, Alabama 16: Etienne Scores Again

The Tigers took advantage of Tua Tagovailoa’s mistake, marching 47 yards on eight plays, with Travis Etienne scoring a 5-yard touchdown on a shovel pass from Trevor Lawrence, which along with the extra point has Clemson up 28-16.

Clemson started small, with a short run by Etienne, a few short passes from Lawrence to Hunter Renfrow and then a 3-yard pass from Lawrence to Tavien Feaster.

Lawrence then opened things up with a pass to a streaking Amari Rodgers, who managed a 26-yard catch-and-run that got Clemson all the way to Alabama’s 5-yard line.

A first-down run by Etienne went nowhere, but Lawrence executed a nice fake, looking like he was dropping back to pass before flipping the ball forward to Etienne who dove into the end zone.

Etienne is up to three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving).

Marc Tracy: If this score holds, Alabama will enter halftime with a 12-point deficit. In last year’s title game, they entered halftime with a 13-point deficit — prompting Nick Saban to switch quarterbacks. Could we possibly see that again?

Clemson 31, Alabama 16: Tigers Get Some Insurance

Clemson had gotten the ball back quickly thanks to Alabama’s offensive possession being short-circuited on a 3rd-and-6 play at the Crimson Tide’s 45-yard line in which Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen, who had intercepted Tua Tagovailoa on the previous drive, raced in on a blitz and sacked Tagovailoa for an 11-yard loss.

That defensive play, in which Mullen punched the ball out of Tagovailoa’s hands — Alabama recovered — resulted in the Crimson Tide punting.

On the resulting possession, Clemson was nowhere near as sharp, with Lawrence throwing a pair of ugly incompletions at the end, but Huegel’s field goal stretched their lead to 15 points.

2nd Half: Alabama Tries a Fake, but Fails

That was not the start to the second half that the Crimson Tide wanted.

After Alabama’s drive stalled out at Clemson’s 22-yard line, the defending champions lined up for a field-goal, but their ruse, in which they attempted to run for it on 4th-and-6, went nowhere, as the Tigers had the fake pegged from the start. Clemson swarmed Mac Jones and knocked him backward for a 2-yard loss and a turnover on downs.

Clemson 37, Alabama 16: Clemson Pulling Away

Things are starting to get ugly for Alabama.

Clemson’s first two plays of the second half went for a combined 2 yards, but on 3rd-and-8, Trevor Lawrence found a wide-open Justyn Ross, who was able to cut around a defender before going off to the races for a 74-yard touchdown reception.

The touchdown has stretched Clemson’s lead to 37-16.

The thrilling touchdown by Ross was set up at the line scrimmage when Alabama’s Saivion Smith had tried to jam the wide receiver but immediately hit the turf with an injury. With Ross largely uncovered there was nothing Alabama could do to slow him down.

Smith had to be carted off the field, which delayed the extra-point attempt, which Greg Huegel missed.

Alabama Comes Up Short Again

Alabama’s offense was once again stopped in its tracks.

The Tide’s drive once again started a drive with a Najee Harris run, which went for 11 yards, but playing with a 21-point deficit the Tide knew they would have to pass and Tua Tagovailoa threw a nice ball up the middle for a 23-yard gain by DeVonta Smith.

Harris was knocked back for no gain on a run, and then Tagovailoa rolled out to find the running back Josh Jacobs for a 16-yard catch in traffic.

A 6-yard pass to Jaylen Waddle, and two incompletions (one of which appeared to have a missed pass interference call) set up a 4th-and-14 from Clemson’s 14-yard line, and Tagovailoa, under heavy pressure, tried to run for a first down but fell just short for a turnover on downs.

Clemson 44, Alabama 16: Tigers Can’t Be Stopped

Clemson’s offense is out of control.

After Trevor Lawrence hit Tee Higgins in the end zone for a 5-yard score, the Tigers are up 44-16 with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.

Clemson’s first few plays of the drive had been fairly conservative, but on 3rd-and-12, Lawrence opened things up, throwing deep over the shoulder of Justyn Ross for a 37-yard gain and a first down.

It briefly looked like Alabama had recovered a fumble later in the drive, but a review by the officials gave the ball back to Clemson with a 3rd-and-9 from Alabama’s 37-yard line. Lawrence took full advantage, picking up a first down with a nice 17-yard pass to Ross which the receiver pulled in with just his right hand before finding a way to get a foot down before falling out of bounds.

Travis Etienne pushed the ball all the way to Alabama’s 9-yard line with a run up the left sideline, but two subsequent runs went nowhere

Undeterred, Lawrence threw an absolute bullet into the end zone to Higgins, stretching his team’s lead.

Marc Tracy: They are playing “Sweet Home, Alabama” while a Crimson Tide video highlight package plays in the stadium right now. Not optimal timing!

Clemson’s Defense Closes the Door

Alabama simply does not have what it takes to compete with Clemson today.

Tua Tagovailoa repeatedly threw aggressively downfield, and he connected with Jerry Jeudy for an impressive 48-yard completion, and the team found itself in the red zone, but they couldn’t do anything with it.

A series of runs left them with a 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line and a planned run for Tagovailoa was knocked back for a 7-yard loss and a turnover on downs.

After the quarterback hit the turf, Clemson players immediately began celebrating on the field, knowing they have likely clinched a championship despite the game still having 12 minutes left to play.

John Branch: With so much worry in the Bay Area over whether the game would sell out (it did, officials said), no one could have predicted what the stands at Levi’s Stadium would look like midway through the fourth quarter. Clemson fans, bedecked in orange, did not move, cheering and anticipating the trophy presentation. But Alabama fans flooded out, having seen enough. They left behind a bit of a camouflaged disguise, because the seats at Levi’s Stadium are crimson, too.

Benjamin Hoffman is a senior staff editor and regular contributor to the Keeping Score column in sports. He joined The Times in 2005. @BenHoffmanNYT Facebook

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