GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Tight end O.J. Howard, something of an afterthought in the Alabama offense throughout the regular season, made for the hero nobody expected in the College Football Playoff Championship in the Crimson Tide's 45-40 win over Clemson on Monday night.
Howard caught five passes for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns -- a 53-yard scoring play in the first half and a 51-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that put Alabama ahead to stay. He then helped secure the win with a 63-yard reception in the fourth quarter on a backside screen pass he broke down the left sideline. Howard's heroics and a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Kenyan Drake with 7:31 to play secured coach Nick Saban's fifth national championship and fourth at Alabama.
"We just had three busts," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of the Tigers' inability to cover Howard. "We just had three critical errors where we just didn't do our job."
The second of Howard's touchdown receptions was set up by what will likely go down as one of the gutsiest calls in college football championship history. Saban called for an onside kick just after Adam Griffith tied the game at 24-24 with a 33-yard field goal. Marlon Humphrey recovered and two plays later Jake Coker hit Howard for the 51-yard score.
Including a national title at LSU, Saban improved to 5-0 in his career in national championship games.
"We were really trying to get the ball to him more and more and more and he certainly made some big plays tonight," Saban said of Howard. "He's a great player for us and a weapon for us."
Howard had just 394 receiving yards all season entering play Monday night, with no touchdowns, but emerged as the catalyst Alabama's offense needed to overcome a ferocious Clemson pass rush. Howard is among a lengthy cast of Crimson Tide underclassmen who are considering early NFL draft entry. NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah noted that Howard's skills will translate well to the next level. The deadline to file for early draft eligibility is Jan. 18. As for other players in the game with an NFL decision to make, Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said he would return to college for his senior year. He was the only underclassman to announce a decision after the game.
Alabama's defensive front made easy work of Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, limiting the Tigers' leading rusher to minimal yardage. That essentially put Clemson's entire offense on Watson's shoulders, but he responded both as a rusher and passer. Watson finished 30 of 47 for 405 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He added another 73 rushing yards, and Swinney reiterated after the game that he believes his sophomore star to be the best player in college football.
Clemson sacked Alabama quarterback Jake Coker four times in the first half -- twice each by standout defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd -- though at times the senior was indecisive and held the ball too long. That pressure helped keep the Alabama offense out of rhythm despite a strong performance by running back Derrick Henry. The Heisman Trophy winner rushed 36 times for 158 yards for the Crimson Tide, becoming the school's career rushing leader.
Henry opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown run over the right side on Alabama's second possession. On the ensuing series, the Tigers answered with a nifty kickoff return to the Clemson 46, and six plays later, Watson found Hunter Renfrow for a 31-yard touchdown pass placed perfectly between two defenders to tie the game 7-7.