TAMPA — For 11-plus quarters, Clemson players kept asking to run the same play — Crush.
It worked time after time in practice. Why not pull it out in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech, or the two playoff games?
"We're saving it for a big game," Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.
So they pulled it out in the biggest moment of the biggest game of them all.
Deshaun Watson's 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left capped off a 35-31 thriller over Alabama in Monday night's College Football Playoff national title game. It was the third lead change in the final five minutes, and it sent the orange-heavy Raymond James Stadium-record crowd of 74,512 into a frenzy as the Tigers (14-1) won their second national championship (and first since 1981).
"What a fight," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
What a finish — the rare sequel that surpassed the original.
Monday's game felt a lot like last year's, when the teams met at Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium and exploded for 40 points in a back-and-forth fourth quarter in the Tide's eventual 45-40 win.
'Bama (14-1) had a monstrous back pounding through the Tigers. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry did it last year, and Bo Scarbrough did it Monday (93 yards, two touchdowns). Clemson's defense busted coverages again, letting 'Bama tight end O.J. Howard escape for a deja-vu touchdown catch.
And there was the 24-21 fourth-quarter lead. Clemson squandered it last year. 'Bama wasted it this time.
"We had our chances," said Tide coach Nick Saban, whose first title-game loss cost him a shot of tying Bear Bryant with a sixth national championship. "And there's nobody that we can blame but ourselves."
Except for the two-time Heisman finalist on the other sideline.
Trailing by three in the fourth quarter, Watson first beat the Tide with his arm. He was 3-for-3 on one drive with a pivotal 26-yard pass to soaring receiver Mike Williams.
Then he beat the Tide with his legs. Watson broke off a 15-yard rush and dove to the 1, setting up a Wayne Gallman rush that gave Clemson a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left.
'Bama responded, with a fourth-down conversion, a double pass and eventually a 30-yard touchdown run by true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts that put the Tide back ahead 31-28 with 2:07 left.
Watson's mind flashed to last year, when Clemson had the ball with too little time left.
"This time they left us a little bit too much," Watson said.
He and the country's best receiving corps made sure of it.
The Tide's defense led it to 26 consecutive wins, but Clemson knew 'Bama wasn't as deep as last year - especially in the secondary. The Tigers cycled through receivers: Williams (eight catches, 94 yards) subbed with former Tampa Bay Tech star Deon Cain (five catches, 94 yards). East Lake High alumnus Artavis Scott subbed with Sickles High product Ray-Ray McCloud.
"We knew in the fourth quarter, that's when their legs were going to start getting heavy," Jeff Scott said.
They did, allowing Clemson to drive the first 66 yards, all the way to the 2, with six seconds left. The Tigers needed a play with a few options. They needed one that was quick, too, so they could still tie the score with a field goal if it failed.
They needed Crush.
"We knew this play was going to work all day," Cain said. "We saved it in our back pocket throughout the whole game."
Scott lined up wide right, then cut in on a slant to pick off 'Bama defensive back Tony Brown.
"Call it what you want," Scott said.
Artavis Scott preferred to call it a touchdown, after Renfrow — a former walk-on — slipped behind the defense to snag his second score of the game.
Before the confetti could fall, Clemson had one more thing to avenge.
Last season's thriller turned when 'Bama executed a surprise onside kick with 10 minutes left in a tie game. This time Swinney made the call. Kicker Greg Huegel's recovery allowed Clemson to run out the clock, avenge last season's defeat and jumpstart a celebration 35 years in the making.
"We feel like we're in a movie," Jeff Scott said. "The best part doesn't happen in the middle. The adversity happens in the middle, and then the best part happens right here at the end."
With one second left, and one of the greatest plays in championship game history.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]abay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.