TAMPA — When Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson steps on the field at Raymond James Stadium for pregame warmups Saturday, he expects a lot of memories to come flooding back.
Less than three years ago, Watson had his crowning college football moment here, leading Clemson to a 35-31 win over Alabama in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship game, a back-and-fourth contest regarded as one of the best title games played.
“It was just a great day overall,” Watson said this week. "It was a cool environment, cool stadium and definitely a lot of fun.”
Watson, who rallied the Tigers back from a 10-point late third-quarter deficit by outscoring Alabama 21-7 in the fourth, culminating with a game-winning, one-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow in the corner of the stadium’s north end zone, just a strong beads throw away from the pirate ship.
“That right corner down toward the tunnel is definitely a spot that I will have to revisit for sure,” Watson said.
Clemson's dramatic win that year came after losing to Alabama in the title game the previous season in Arizona. Last season, Clemson beat Alabama again for the national title.
But what made that night unique is that it was one full of future NFL stars. Of the 44 starters in that game, 32 of them went on to the NFL. That includes 29 who were drafted, 14 in the first round. And that doesn’t include Jalen Hurts, the current Oklahoma standout who was Alabama’s starting quarterback as a freshman and could be drafted in the first round in April.
Former Alabama standouts Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick anchor NFL secondaries in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, respectively. Calvin Ridley (Alabama/Falcons) and Mike Williams (Clemson/Chargers) are among the game’s top young receivers. Even Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, a seventh-round pick this year, started four games for Detroit this season as a rookie.
“It was a lot of talent on the field that day,” said Bucs tight end O.J. Howard, who was Alabama’s leading receiver with 106 yards that game. “And it showed up. When talent like that is on the field, it’s always going to be a hard competitive fight. The game could have went either way, and I honestly think whoever was going to have the ball last was going to win the game.”
But on that night, Watson and Howard were the game’s two biggest stars. And Sunday will mark their first time back on that field together.
Howard has 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns in Alabama’s 2016 national title game win over Clemson the previous season. And in this game, he made a lead block that sprung Scarbrough for a touchdown run for the game’s first score. And then, after Scarbrough left the game with an injury, Howard caught a 68-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to give the Crimson Tide a 24-14 lead with 1:53 left to go in the third.
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"It was up and down," Howard said. "A lot of guys went down. We had Bo Scarbrough go down. We had a freshman running back, a freshman quarterback. It was a lot going on. It was one of those games that you just never forget."
Clemson then scored 14 unanswered points to take a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left in the game. But on the next possession, Howard was on the receiving end of a 24-yard gain on a trick play, a wide receiver pass from Ardarius Stewart, setting up Hurts’ 30-yard go-ahead touchdown run on the next play.
“That’s when we thought the game was over, but it was just a back and forth game,” Howard said. “I knew it was going to be a close game any time Deshaun Watson has the ball in his hands. It wasn’t over until the clock hit zero.”
With 2:01 left, Watson led the Tigers 68 yards down the field for the game-winning touchdown drive.
“We were just on the sideline thinking, ‘They gave us too much time,’” said current Bucs and former Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett, who caught a huge 17-yard pass that put Clemson at the 9-yard line with 19 seconds left. “And that’s just how we rolled with it.”
Leggett said Watson and the Tigers were well-prepared for the game-winning drive. Many of their game's that season game down to two-minute drives.
"We were a really fast offense and for some reason, whenever we did go two minute that's probably when we were the most explosive," Leggett said. "That's when we made the most plays. That's when the defense was getting tired. You kind of forgot about who you're playing at the time. Once we went to two-minute, it was just going back to the basics. We had been doing it all year. We had been doing is every day in practice. We just all knew what to do, when to be."
Three plays after Leggett’s reception, and following a defensive pass interference call that put the ball at the two, Watson rolled to his right and hit Renfrow in the end zone as the clock ticked down to a single second, ending his college career with a 420-yard, three-touchdown passing day and a national title in Tampa.
“I’ve always had the confidence, I always knew that throughout adversity I was going to manage through it,” Watson said. "But then the biggest thing is just really just playing the next play and being able to — whenever that opportunity came, whatever that next step is — being 100 percent locked in and focused and ready for that moment. That moment came and that opportunity came, and we capitalized on it.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.