TAMPA, Fla. — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has a quiet determination, a fire that burns inside that seldom bubbles to the front.
But if you want to see a true competitor, watch how he performs when it matters most.
Watson kept the Tigers in Monday’s national championship game all night, putting them in position to dethrone Alabama. Then he led the drive of a lifetime, finishing it with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with just a second left.
It was heart-pounding stuff at Raymond James Stadium, a drive and a play that create campus legends. A game and a finish that will go down among the greatest in college football history.
This was much like the title game in the Rose Bowl that gave Texas the 2005 national championship when quarterback Vince Young ran into the end zone, a play and a game that dethroned defending champion Southern California.
“The thing that was running through my mind was Vince Young,” Watson said. “I wanted to be great. I wanted to be legendary. Vince Young is one on my favorite players that I loved to watch. We pulled it off.”
Clemson’s 35-31 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship made up for the heartache of a year ago when the same teams met in Glendale, Arizona.
Alabama walked away that night as the champion following a 45-40 victory, but Watson was sensational and nearly led Clemson to the victory. He passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 73 yards.
Then he topped himself in a sequel that topped the original. Watson passed for 420 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown.
All game, he kept leading the Tigers back, even after they fell behind 14-0 early in the second quarter and Alabama was starting to roll. Watson finally brought Clemson all the way back to take a 28-24 lead with 4:38 to play.
Alabama is a champion program for a reason, and the Crimson Tide converted a fourth-and-1, used a wide receiver to complete a 24-yard pass, and then went ahead 31-28 on quarterback Jalen Hurts’ tackle-breaking 30-yard TD run.
Only 2:07 left, and the Tigers had given back the lead they worked so hard to get. They would need to dig deep, to quickly forget what just happened.
Watson, who graduated in 2½ years with a communications degree, then rallied his teammates.
“It was calm,” Watson said. “No one ever panicked. I went up to my offensive line, I went up to my receivers, and I said, ‘Let’s be legendary. Let’s be great.’”
And they were.
Clemson took over at its 32-yard line with 2:01 remaining. Watson led the Tigers to Alabama’s 2, with just 6 seconds on the clock. They could have sent the game into overtime with a field goal, but the Tigers had just enough time for one shot into the end zone.
Watson took it, finding Renfrow on the right side for Clemson’s first national championship in 35 years.
“We set out to put Clemson back on top,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “We came up a little short last year, but tonight on the top of that mountain, that Clemson flag is flying.
“This has been the most incredible team I’ve been around. You saw their heart. You saw it all year.”
Everyone, for sure, saw it on this night.
And no one’s heart beat stronger than Watson’s.
A man of quiet determination. A champion.
The only missing part of Watson’s resume is a Heisman Trophy, but he might win a recount if one were to occur.
“He didn’t miss out on the Heisman,” Swinney said. “The Heisman missed out on him. Tonight was his Heisman.”
Contact Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.