You wouldn’t have blamed Deshaun Watson if he waved the white flag.
Clemson’s star quarterback was getting pulverized by a historically potent Alabama defense in the 2017 National Championship, with two hits standing out among the onslaught.
Early in the first quarter, Watson rolled to his left and delivered a shovel pass. Meanwhile, linebacker Reuben Foster blasted through Clemson’s offensive line like a rocket and temporarily rocked Watson into another dimension.
Then, down 17-14, Watson replicated John Elway’s iconic helicopter play from Super Bowl 32.
This is life for a quarterback against a Nick Saban defense. Nothing comes easy, especially when Roll Tide’s front seven consumed everything in its path like a tsunami. They don’t dominate in a conventional manner — instead of riding the coattails of a quarterback and scoring at will, Nick Saban’s bunch slowly tortures its opponents with a defense littered with future NFL talent.
Opposing offenses appear timid, hoping to avoid making a critical mistake that’ll send every ounce of momentum on the Crimson Tide’s side. Like clockwork, that mistake is eventually made, and the mistakes turn from an innocent, tumbling snowball into an avalanche of misfortunes. It happened time after time last season, as Roll Tide’s defense rolled its way to 11 touchdowns. To put that number in perspective, Boston College’s offense scored 19 touchdowns in 2016.
Clearly, beating the Crimson Tide is much easier said than done, but if Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers proved anything, it’s that college football’s greatest dynasty does indeed have kryptonite, albeit an extreme one at that: Run 99 plays.
In order to topple the kings of college football, unique circumstances are required, which is exactly what happened in the National Championship Game. Clemson ran 99 plays against Alabama and won… with one second remaining.
It’s a testament to both programs, but particularly the Crimson Tide, who despite allowing 35 points were exceptional on defense when diving deep into the numbers.
In total, they allowed five touchdowns, but forced 10 Clemson punts and two turnovers. The problem was that the Tigers ran a staggering amount of plays because Alabama’s offense was incapable of mustering together one methodical drive that drained the clock. They scored 31 points, but it was probably the most poorly executed high-scoring performance ever because Alabama’s offense only did one of two things: Score quickly or go three-and-out. Alabama’s five scoring “drives” elapsed on average only 1:28, and after starting the game 2-of-3 on third down conversions, the Crimson Tide went 0-of-12 the rest of the way.
During the 2016 season, The Tigers scored on five of their 17 possessions, or 29 percent. During the 14 games preceding the National Championship, Clemson averaged 13 possessions per game and scored on 44 percent of them. So despite Clemson receiving 31 percent more possessions than they normally did per game, Alabama’s defense still held the Tigers under their scoring rate by 15 percentage points, which is bonkers.
So clearly, the strategy is simple, yet complicated. Force Jalen Hurts to beat you through the air, and on offense, run as many plays as humanly possible. Because while Alabama is borderline impossible to defeat, they aren’t invincible after all.