In order to win the rematch with Alabama, Clemson had to either stuff the Tide offense one more time or hope to carry out a two-minute drive against arguably the best defense of the Nick Saban era.
Clemson’s defense, which garnered its own offense 17 possessions thanks to forcing 11 punts, was surprisingly not up to the task of holding back Jalen Hurts one more time.
All the better for the rest of us, as it set up this wonderful final drive between the two best units in the game.
With the game down to these final minutes, each team turned to a pretty specific package of players to win the season.
Clemson rolled with an 11 personnel (one tight end and one running back) group that included RB Wayne Gallman and TE Jordan Leggett. It has the ability to become a four- or five-wide set thanks to the versatility of those two players.
Clemson turned to former walk-on Hunter Renfrow in the slot, with Artavis Scott outside on the right and Mike Williams outside on the left.
Alabama matched with a 2-3-6 dime package, featuring Jonathan Allen (or D’Shawn Hand) and Ryan Anderson (or Da’Ron Payne) up front with Rashaan Evans, Tim Williams, and Reuben Foster at LB. With those guys, they could create a 3-4 or 4-3 look and mix up the sorts of pressures they played.
In the secondary, they added safety Hootie Jones to their normal nickel set of CBs Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett, nickel Tony Brown, strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and free safety (now dime) Ronnie Harrison. They had the 6’ Brown shadow the 5’11 Renfrow while the 6’3 Harrison tracked the 6’5 Leggett, to avoid major size or quickness matchup issues.
Here’s how that tended to look:
The advantages for Alabama were having five good pass rushers up front, having the ability to play man coverage across the board while also playing deep safeties, and keeping No. 32 Evans and No. 10 Foster in the box, where they could keep an eye on QB Deshaun Watson in case he ran. Additionally, with No. 29 Fitzpatrick playing over the top to the wide side of the field, they had All-American quality help on any routes in that space.
The advantages for Clemson were in the size matchups they had in No. 7 Mike Williams (6’3, 220) vs No. 28 Averett (6’0, 180) and in No. 16 Leggett vs. No. 15 Harrison. Other than modern rules favoring teams that throw, that’s about it.
Things started off with a fantastic C.J. Fuller kickoff return that was a Brown shoestring tackle away from potentially negating the need for a final drive.
Instead, Clemson began on its own 32.
First-and-10 on the Clemson 32, 2:01 on the clock
Clemson started in a four-wide set, running double slants to the wide side and an out-fade combo on the boundary.
Alabama was playing man coverage and using two ILBs (Foster and Evans) to cover the RB and spy Watson, to make sure he didn’t slip loose for a scramble.
Because it’s man coverage, there’s no outside help for Harrison on the quick out. Watson hits his big TE, Leggett, for 5 quick yards.
Second-and-5 on the Clemson 37, 1:56
This is perfectly engineered to leverage Clemson’s superior WR corps and give Watson easy reads, to know how to attack after the snap.
The Tide tried to sneak Fitzpatrick down late over Renfrow while sending a pseudo-blitz, which kept Foster’s eyes on the RB and Anderson’s on Watson.
The Tigers are running a 7-in-in route combination on the right, with Scott and Renfrow running quick ins under a corner route by Leggett. Williams is running a fade on the weak side.
If Alabama is playing two deep safeties, the potential leverage is in Leggett running the corner route on the field safety (No. 29 Fitzpatrick here). Single-high safety coverage means Williams is facing Averett without any deep help. Watson saw single-high coverage and tossed it up for his big WR.
First-and-10 on the Alabama 39, 1:41
This is a missed opportunity for the Tide.
They rolled into a 4-1-6 look rather than the 3-2-6 front they’d been using, and Evans takes advantage. He gets a great jump outside on LT Mitch Hyatt, but the ball is out so quick, it doesn’t matter.
Secondly, Clemson’s attempted hook-and-ladder play gets RB Gallman popped in the backfield by nickel Brown, but he shakes off the hit and managed positive yardage.
Like Clemson’s fourth-and-one call early in the game, this depends on a good block by TE Leggett that was not forthcoming. However, Gallman ran hard all night and manages to keep Clemson from second-and-long.
Second-and-4 on the Alabama 33, 1:06
Clemson loads the strength of its formation into the boundary side (the side closer to the sideline), which doesn’t give anyone much room to work, but does create a ton of open grass to the field for Williams. However, neither Williams nor Renfrow wins deep on vertical routes because Bama’s in two-deep coverage. Watson notices ground to take off, but Anderson is spying him and closes off that space.
This is costly, running about 30 seconds off the clock and setting up a crucial third down in questionable field goal range.
Third-and-3 on the Alabama 32, 00:28
Alabama makes things much too easy here. The Tigers motion Renfrow from the boundary to the field before the snap and nickel Brown chases him, indicating man coverage and possibly a blitz.
The Tigers run another of their combos to give Watson a post-snap choice on which side of the field to attack, running “snag” to the boundary and “double slants” to the field. Alabama blitzes Harrison, rather than using him on Leggett, looking to overload Clemson’s vulnerable right side:
If Watson sees two deep safeties, the corner route in snag (No. 16) would have leverage on the deep field safety, whereas a single deep safety would mean that the double slants to the right would have favorable matchups.
Alabama’s playing one deep safety. Brown’s way off on Renfrow, making for an easy pitch and catch that negates any advantages of the blitz. Clemson’s now potentially in field goal range, which would tie the game, although its kicker hadn’t been consistent.
First-and-10 on the Alabama 26, 00:21
Clemson spikes the ball to kill the clock.
Second-and-10 on the Alabama 26, 00:19
It’s my opinion that this is the play that really broke Alabama.
The Tide bring a creative, four-man pressure, have all the matchups they wanted, and have safeties over the top, but they still get beat.
The call for Clemson is switch verticals to either side of the formation, with Gallman slipping up the seam. Watson locks in on No. 16 Leggett on the boundary all the way, knowing he could avoid Fitzpatrick and Brown and take advantage of Leggett’s size.
There’s not much else Alabama could have done, other than to bring more pressure and take chances with Watson getting loose on the scramble.
Bama’s in a world of trouble now, having to deal with all of Clemson’s receiving threats on the goal line as well as the possibility of a designed Watson run.
First-and-goal on the Alabama 9, 00:14
Clemson goes back to the “7-in-in” combo paired with a fade to Williams on the weak side. Alabama plays two-deep coverage this time, so Watson goes to the corner route. Fitzpatrick doesn’t bite on Leggett’s inside move and cut off his path to the corner. Incomplete.
Second-and-goal on the Alabama 9, 00:09
Clemson must have figured a blitz was coming. Williams runs another fade route while the other receivers all run hitch routes.
Instead, Alabama plays two-deep. Watson tries to force the ball to Williams’ back shoulder despite the safety playing over the top. At least Clemson’s throwing away from Fitzpatrick that way, but Williams beats Averett inside, leading the corner to grab him and incur a defensive pass interference penalty.
First-and-goal on the Alabama 2, 00:06
On the two-yard line, there’s any number of plays the Tigers could go to. But it’s fitting that they choose to take down mighty Alabama’s endless army of five-star recruits by tossing a little pitch out to their former walk-on slot receiver.
Clemson brings TE Leggett back in line to threaten Alabama with a run/pass option play. The Tide respond by loading the box and playing man coverage outside on the twin receivers.
Then they run a classic, play-action play designed to beat man coverage on the outside. Since Alabama is playing press coverage, it’s way too easy for Scott to engage with Humphrey and push him back into Brown, preventing the nickel from getting over what offensive coaches call a “rub” (or what defensive coaches derisively call a “pick,” a term even Watson used after the game) and leaving Renfrow for an easy six. 35-31.
Alabama has lost 11 games this decade, each for a variety of reasons.
Much of its competition in the SEC has tried to take it down the Ohio State way, which is to be the bigger, better team in the trenches for 60 minutes, as Ohio State was in 2014. This is folly.
Clemson proved in 2015 that even a modernized Alabama defense with a great pass rush could be attacked through the air, because every defense can be attacked that way.
Both sides of that matchup got better in the offseason, they met up, and Clemson took it to them again. This final drive will go down as one of the best in college football history, but it should also be instructive to other teams that want to take down big, bad Bama.