By Andrea Adelson
TAMPA, Fla. — The game clock showed 2:01. Deshaun Watson gathered his teammates and told them simply, “We’re going to get this touchdown. We’re going to win this national championship.”
Nobody on that sideline doubted. Not with Watson under center. Everybody wearing orange and purple firmly believed they had the best player in the country on their side, Heisman or no Heisman. They reminded everybody: Heismans are voted on; championships are won.
This would be it for him, on the last drive, in his last game.
“I’d seen the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew,” Watson said after Monday’s title game. “I told myself, ‘They left too much time on the clock.'”
First play, pass complete. Second play, pass complete. Down the field they went, a march toward inevitability. When Watson arrived at Clemson in January 2013, he tweeted, “Me. In a National Championship Game. I’m just waiting on that moment.”
It came on first-and-goal at the Alabama 2. The play call came in: Crush. Watson would roll out and go to receiver Hunter Renfrow in the flat.
“We knew that play was going to work,” Clemson receiver Mike Williams said. “When you want it the most, you go out with your best call. We knew that was our best call.”
The play call was brilliant. So was its execution.
“I saw the whole play develop, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, wide open,'” Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “I’m on field goal unit, so I sprinted right onto the field as Deshaun was throwing it. I knew it was game. One second left. It was beautiful timing.”
Clemson center Jay Guillermo offered his take.
“It’s like a movie,” Guillermo said. “All the sports movies you watch, the storybook ending. It’s one they’re going to be writing about for a really long time.”
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott watched it all unfold, the way he had so many times before, when Watson came through with one clutch play after another to pull out close wins. Against Louisville. Against Florida State. Against NC State.
This one, though, with the championship on the line …
“Just legendary,” Scott said. “Deshaun is such a special player and has meant so much to Clemson. That’s what we told the guys before the game. The only way for this group to go out is to go out with a win and to have it come on that last drive.”
Clemson senior linebacker Ben Boulware sobbed on a folding chair on the sideline while his teammates celebrated around him after Monday’s championship.
Swinney embraced Watson, a partnership that was born when former offensive coordinator Chad Morris started recruiting the quarterback as a high school freshman — far before any other program in the country had come to town.
The love, trust and bond was evident in that one embrace.
“I said, ‘I love you,'” Swinney said. “I said, ‘Man, this is what you came here to do, and so proud of you. We did it. We did it.'”
His legend was cemented even before kickoff, but that final drive put Watson in territory that might be hard to reach. He was named most valuable player, the third game in four College Football Playoff contests that Watson received those honors. He finished with 941 yards and eight touchdowns in two title games against Alabama, widely considered the top program in the country over the past eight years.
The final statistics on Watson’s career are simply staggering: 32-3 as a starting quarterback, two ACC championships, one national championship and 115 touchdowns responsible for, not to mention more than 11,000 yards of total offense.
“Unfazed. The guy is remarkable, man,” Alabama defensive end Tim Williams said. “He’s a great player. He is Clemson. Everybody follows behind him. We tried to knock him down a couple times, get in his head. An awesome athlete like that, you just have to take what he gives you.”
Indeed, Watson was hit more than he had been in recent memory, starting on the first drive of the game. He looked shaky at times, but as he got into a rhythm, Clemson got into a rhythm. As Clemson controlled the ball, the vaunted Alabama defense wore down.
With the game on the line, with the most clutch player in the country against the best defense in the country, Watson won.
“Two years in a row being a finalist for the Heisman and not winning it — now I’m sure people are probably like, maybe that guy should have won,” Wilkins said. “He definitely should have. He’s the best player in college football.”
Watson was the last player off the field and was met by former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd near the tunnel. Boyd wrapped him in an embrace, the quarterback who laid the foundation for Clemson to reach this point.
“I just told him how proud I am,” Boyd said. “He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play this game. You look at his performance, you look at who he is. As soon as I saw them get the ball back with two minutes left on the clock, I was like, come on now. You all know what’s about to happen. This kid has ice in his veins. To see him do it is special.”
After the final snap he ever took for the program that he elevated to the college football elite, Watson said, “It’s just special. That’s how we wanted to end it.”
AGE: We will keep you guessing
BACKGROUND: Andrea has been a college football reporter at ESPN.com since 2010, covering the ACC for the last five seasons. A University of Florida graduate, Andrea got-on-the-job training covering the football team under Steve Spurrier. One of her career highlights came during her time as an undergraduate: punting with the football team during a practice for a column about the Gators’ tenuous punter situation. Ask Spurrier. He still remembers. From there, she got a job at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel covering the team that inspired her to become a sports writer: the University of Miami. Andrea covered the 2001 national championship team, and is still not quite so sure how she got so lucky. From there, she covered the New York Jets for the AP in New York and then became a general assignment reporter and college football columnist at The Orlando Sentinel. She and her husband, Eric, have two daughters and live in Orlando, Fla. In her spare time, Andrea tries to run and/or train for triathlons. She has completed various 5Ks, 10Ks and one half marathon, along with three triathlons. She also volunteers at her daughters’ school and serves as a mentor to first-grade students.