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Initial Impressions From the National Championship Game

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Alabama 45, Clemson 40

What a night.
What a night.
Harry How/Getty Images

Stop me if you've heard this before.

Alabama's offense carried the day, riding a spectacular performance from big-play TE O.J. Howard and a couple of huge plays on special teams to overcome some sketchy defensive play and win in a shootout.

Oh, wait...

College football once again proved to be as unpredictable as it is beautiful, as two of the best defenses in the country showed up to play for the national title in Glendale only to watch a Big 12 game break out. The game was played at a frenetic pace and the Tide had few answers for Clemson's transcendent QB, Deshaun Watson, who showed early on that he was prepared to put the Clemson Tigers on his back by throwing two perfect passes for TDs against tight man coverage in the first quarter. The game plan all season against mobile QBs was simple enough: trap them in a collapsing pocket, get the hands in the passing lanes, and tackle them if they tried to escape. Whether it was an uncharacteristic lack of discipline from the Alabama front, the curious strategy to go without a spy in some cases, or Watson's signature escapability and athleticism, the Clemson field general managed to break contain and get loose time after time.

That is perhaps the most interesting thing about this game. The tape will show that the Tide defense didn't play poorly. There were few pure coverage busts. Wayne Gallman, the talented Clemson RB, was rendered virtually useless for most of the game. Indeed, this was Watson's Vince Young moment as he followed up a rather pedestrian showing in the semifinals to light up the nation's best pass defense for over 400 yards and four TDs. His performance was truly a sight to behold, conjuring up some bad memories for Tide fans of otherworldly performances by opposing QBs in years gone by. Going into the half, the feeling was that the Tide had done well to stay in the game, somehow managing a tie score despite the fact that Clemson was seemingly outplaying them.

Coming out of the half, it appeared that Alabama was prepared to take control of the game. Clemson had been held scoreless in the second quarter, managing only 67 total yards in four possessions. On the Tigers' opening possession of the second half, Alabama forced a quick three-and-out then followed it up with the first of two huge TD passes from Jake Coker to Howard. Confidence started to grow among Tide fans at this point, as this is the point in the game when upstarts are typically snuffed out and the Alabama depth takes over. Unfortunately, Watson was just getting warmed up as he promptly used his mobility to answer with ten points sandwiched around an ugly three-and-out for the Tide that featured two declined holding penalties on RT Dominick Jackson, who was victimized repeatedly by Clemson DE Kevin Dodd.

The teams traded punts a couple of times before the Tide put together a decent drive that ended in a well-struck field goal by Adam Griffith to tie things at 24.

Then it happened.

Nick Saban, he of the boring, old school tactics who is known for sucking all of the fun out of college football, morphed into a riverboat gambler. Sensing that his team needed a spark, he dialed up an impeccably timed onside kick and couldn't help but crack a smile after Adam Griffith and Marlon Humphrey combined to execute it to perfection. Coker quickly cashed in on the opportunity, finding OJ Howard down the seam for a touchdown on a busted coverage. The Tide went up 31-24, while allowing some extended rest for a championship caliber defense. Surely they would flex their muscles at this point.

Nope.

Gallman managed to get loose for the first time all night, ripping off a 34-yard run to help Clemson march 61 yards in less than two minutes. Thankfully the Tide held in the red zone to force a short field goal and maintain a four-point cushion. At that point it felt as though it was time for Alabama to lean on its Heisman winner and drain some clock. Clemson's defense had been salty all night, putting Alabama behind the chains with six sacks.

Thankfully, they wouldn't have to.

Kenyan Drake, playing in the last game of a rather tumultuous career, made a spectacular 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, diving at the end and just touching the pylon with the football before his left hand touched the sideline. The end zone became a mob scene as Drake's teammates dog piled him in a heartfelt expression of joy for a teammate who overcame an awful broken leg last season and a broken arm this season to become one of the key veteran leaders on the team. It was impossible to feel anything but happy for that young man.

Clemson certainly wasn't done as Watson managed to put the ball into the end zone twice more, but Alabama never relinquished the lead, putting together one more drive of its own that once again featured Howard, this time on an outstanding catch-and-run on a short pass. Jake Coker converted a key third down near the goal line with his legs and Henry punched it in for a 45-33 lead with just over a minute to play. Tide fans could finally breathe.

Saban has talked about the leadership on this team all season, seemingly pleased at the way that the players genuinely play for one another. This was apparent on Monday night, as a defense that had led the way all season was never able to take over the game. The offense stepped up in fine fashion, particularly Howard, who accounted for 208 of Coker's 335 passing yards to claim Offensive Player of the Game honors (Eddie Jackson won the defensive award) as Clemson DC Brent Venables schemed to take away freshman phenom Calvin Ridley. Derrick Henry had his typical workmanlike performance, carrying the mail 36 times for 158 yards and three scores. Clemson managed to bottle him up for the majority of the night following a 50-yard scamper in the first quarter. The offensive line also struggled mightily in pass protection, particularly the right side of the line against Dodd. At some point you expected to see Jackson get some help over there, but it never came. Of course, the help would have likely come in the form of Howard who was too busy catching passes.

It's almost impossible to look back at last night without comparing it to recent losses. This Alabama team should be remembered for a resolve that wasn't always apparent in the 2013 and 2014 campaigns. For so much of the year, the defense carried an offense that looked rough, but when the defense finally ran into a puzzle it couldn't solve the offense and special teams were there to put up 45 points on nearly 500 yards against one of the best defenses in the nation. Alabama has consistently had a collection of ridiculously talented players over the past several seasons.

This year they had a great team.

Four titles in seven seasons is simply unheard of, and this one was one for the ages. Soak it up and enjoy it, folks. This is truly the golden age.

Roll Tide.