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Deshaun Watson might’ve won the Heisman twice, if they voted on it after bowl season

Clemson’s star QB established himself as a college football legend with two straight torchings of Nick Saban’s defense, this time in victory.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

For Clemson to beat Alabama, Deshaun Watson was always going to have to do the heaviest lifting of the season. He did it.

The Tigers’ so-so run game was never going to make headway against Alabama’s all-world run defense, and it didn’t, going for 2.2 yards per carry. The defense was never going to shut down even a between-coordinators Bama offense, and it didn’t, giving up 31 points. This was always going to be about Watson.

In almost surely his last college game, the junior quarterback’s star shined brightest. He threw 56 passes, completing 36 for 420 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions. His sprint-out TD pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left to play was the championship-deciding play.


In last year’s version of Bama-Clemson, Watson was similarly sublime, but in defeat. This year’s game brought his combined National Championship line to a tidy 66-of-103 for 825 yards, seven touchdowns, and one pick against the best defense in the land.

Watson finished third in the Heisman voting in 2015, then second in 2016. Both of those outcomes were reasonable, because Heisman voting happens after the regular season, not bowl season. This really was Lamar Jackson’s year.

Then Watson delivered the preeminent individual effort of bowl season two years in a row, and this time around, he got rewarded for it. This part will never be provable, but it seems clear that after Jackson’s lousy Citrus Bowl and Watson’s Monday night, Watson would’ve passed him in a vote today. The same could be true of Derrick Henry’s Heisman last year, even though Henry’s Tide won.

But Watson got the one trophy he really wanted.

Think about how hard it is to do what Watson just did.

Alabama was missing safety Eddie Jackson, who’d missed the entire second half of the season. The Tide were also missing inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, an important component of their over-the-middle passing defense. But the Tide still squelched Washington’s Jake Browning a week earlier, along with every quarterback since Arkansas’ Austin Allen on Oct. 8. Watson was facing the best college D anywhere.

Watson’s 145 rating was the second-best any quarterback posted against Bama this year, behind Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly’s 178. He also had the second-highest against Bama last season, again right behind Kelly. His numbers were merely excellent, not impossible-looking in context. But Watson made no significant mistakes on the sport’s biggest stage, against its scariest defense.

Alabama had a plan in place to stop Watson. The Tide played a ton of man-to-man coverage, which cut deep into Clemson’s run-pass option game. If players are locked onto receivers, they’re not as likely to bite down on a running quarterback, who then has a harder time flicking the ball over their heads for a big gain.

Watson had to beat the Tide the old-fashioned way, by dropping back and throwing through them. He was under pressure often and sacked four times. But he was surgical all the same. He turned the Tide’s biggest defensive weakness — a problem with occasional explosive pass plays — into an outright mess. Watson had 10 completions of 17-plus yards, including three of 20-plus to noted deep threat Mike Williams, whom Watson was without last year.

Not that Watson was just hitting home runs. He spread the ball around at every level of the field. He didn’t have a 100-yard receiver, but his top four targets all settled between 92 and 95 yards. He took at least one uncalled targeting shot to the head and got helicoptered by two future NFL defenders. He just stood in and fired, all night. Bama knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it.

The ending looked like an emotional wringer. Apparently not for Watson.

Watson led what was supposed to be a game-winning drive before he led what was actually the game-winning drive.

Trailing, 24-21, with six and a half minutes to play, Watson took the ball at his own 12-yard line. He carved Bama’s defense for 88 yards on six plays, including a brilliant catch by Williams and then his own 15-yard run that set up Wayne Gallman’s go-ahead touchdown from a yard out. With not five minutes left, Clemson was up four points.

Watson’s true freshman counterpart, Bama’s Jalen Hurts, counter punched with a nearly identical drive: the same six plays and 88 yards for a touchdown, but in 2:31 instead of Clemson’s 1:55. Watson sounded unbothered by this.

“I just smiled right when they scored,” he said. “I seen the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew. I just told my guys, ‘Hey, let's be legendary, let's go be great.’ I told myself, ‘They left too much time on the clock. Last year they ran out the time, but this time they left us a little bit too much.’”

Of those 10 throws of 17-plus yards, four of them came in Watson’s last nine attempts. All told, he completed nine of his last 10 passes — the last passes of this college football season, and the last passes of his own college career.

A two-time Heisman finalist and Davey O’Brien Award winner who’d already wowed us for years somehow saved his best for last.