TAMPA, Fla. -- Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who scored two long touchdowns in last year's championship win against Clemson, came through again Monday night, catching a 68-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to give the Tide a 24-14 lead over the Tigers in the national final at Raymond James Stadium.
Clemson had pulled within three points after trailing 14-0 early, but the Tigers left Howard wide open, and freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts found him for the long touchdown with 1:53 left in the third.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson was the key to Clemson climbing within 17-14. Watson set up a touchdown drive with a quick kick on fourth down from the Alabama 43, which was downed at the 5-yard line. After a three-and-out, Clemson got the ball at the Tide 42, and Watson threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow to pull the Tigers within a field goal.
Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson forced and recovered a fumble from Clemson's Wayne Gallman on the opening drive of the second half, returning it to the Tigers 16-yard line. Alabama had to settle for a 27-yard Adam Griffith field goal and a 17-7 lead.
Bo Scarbrough, who put away Washington with a 68-yard touchdown in Alabama's semifinal win, was back at it Monday night. His scoring runs of 25 and 37 yards against the Tigers produced a 14-0 halftime lead.
Clemson was held in check early, producing 72 yards on its first five drives, before coming alive in the second quarter. Watson hit receiver Deon Cain for 43 yards on a short screen, then converted a third-and-10 with a 26-yard pass to tight end Jordan Leggett. Watson capped the drive with an 8-yard scoring run to pull the Tigers within a touchdown.
Clemson moved the ball in the second quarter well enough to be outgaining Alabama 203-183 at the half, though the Tigers trailed on the scoreboard.
The game's first break came when Clemson decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Alabama 41-yard line in the first quarter. The Tigers pitched wide to Gallman, who was dropped by defensive back Tony Brown for no gain, turning the ball over on downs.
Alabama got 20 yards on a scramble by Hurts. Two plays later, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell was flagged for roughing the passer, and Scarbrough followed with a 25-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead with 9:23 left in the opening quarter.
Watson fumbled a third-down snap late in the first quarter, and Alabama's Ryan Anderson recovered to set the Tide up at the Clemson 40. The Tigers' defense stepped up, however, and after a penalty, a 2-yard loss and two incompletions, Alabama had to punt.
NOTES: Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier and former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, announced earlier Monday among the new class for the College Football Hall of Fame, were on the field for the coin toss before the game. ... Clemson last beat Alabama in 1905. The Tigers won the first three meetings between the schools, but none since, including last year's national championship game. ... Clemson S Tanner Muse was credited with a partial deflection of a first-quarter punt, which still went 25 yards for Alabama.