SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Clemson needed a big performance to unseat defending champion Alabama. The Tigers got plenty of them from start to finish.
From freshman Justyn Ross and Trevor Lawrence on offense to an experienced defensive front and turnover -hungry secondary, Clemson stacked up big play after big play to overwhelm typically unflappable Alabama 44-16 on Monday night for its second national title in three seasons.
“It was more than everything I expected it to be,” said Ross, the 6-foot-4 receiver who had six catches for 153 yards.
Ross dazzled the crowd with several acrobatic receptions. His 74-yard catch and run put Clemson ahead 28-16 in the second quarter while his one-armed grab in the third quarter kept Alabama from getting the ball back and regaining momentum.
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“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I’m still shocked about everything.”
So is defending champion Alabama (14-1), which figured to have more than enough playmakers to up with the Tigers. Instead, it was Clemson that seized every opportunity.
Cornerback A.J. Terrell got it rolling with a 44-yard pick six on Tua Tagovailoa’s third pass of the game and Clemson’s defense shut down hopes of a Crimson Tide rally with three unlikely stops on downs in the second half.
“That set the tone,” Clemson All-American defensive end Clelin Ferrell said of Terrell’s TD. “There was no Plan B. There was no sitting back waiting as a defense. We were just going to try and attack. That’s all.”
It was an unexpected ‘Bama beatdown by the Tigers (15-0), who showed poise, strength on the offensive line and speed on defense to manhandle Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide (14-1).
“We came in with the mindset that we were going to play on the balls of our feet and we were going to attack. And we did. We attacked the whole night,” coach Dabo Swinney said.
The two teams swapped big plays early, something of a surprise with the two stout defenses on the field. Lawrence hit Tee Higgins with a 62-yard pass on third-and-14 deep in Tiger territory and Travis Etienne followed with a 17-yard TD run. Tagovailoa’s second interception in the first half, this one by Trayvon Mullen, led to another Clemson score and a 28-16 lead.
In the second half, Ross and the defense took over.
Ross, an Alabama native who spurned his home state school for Clemson, made several outstanding and timely grabs. He broke free for a 74-yard TD catch and run that put the Tigers ahead 37-16. On a third-and-12, Ross grabbed the ball with just his right hand for 37 yards a Tide-deflating first down.
Lawrence said he knew the Tigers were in charge “when Justyn made that crazy catch down there, I said ‘We got this. It’s over.'”
Alabama was going nowhere against Clemson when it mattered most. Backup defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney stuffed Alabama holder Mac Jones on a fake field goal try that ended far short of its goal.
Linebacker Tre Lamar and safety Tanner Muse stopped Tagovailoa a yard short on fourth-and-3 on Clemson’s 14. And with Alabama hoping for any sort of momentum swing, Ferrell stopped Tagovailoa for a 7-yard loss on fourth down near the goal line.
By then, the Crimson Tide had little left to give.
“Anytime you’ve got a team like (Alabama), you’ve got to knock them out,” Ferrell said. “That was our mindset.”
Lawrence, a freshman, was supposed to be rattled by Alabama’s fearsome defensive front. Instead, he threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns, looking as calm and cool has he has since winning the job in late September. He was named the offensive player of the game.
“It’s been an awesome journey. It’s really unbelievable,” Lawrence said.
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