For the second straight game, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker set a career-high in passing yards, finishing 16-of-25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-40 win over No. 1 Clemson in the national championship Monday.
In the first half, though, it didn’t seem that Coker, who was sacked five times on the night, would come anywhere near those types of numbers.
“(Clemson’s defense) had him confused,” CBS Sports college football columnist Dennis Dodd said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “I thought a lot of those sacks were his fault. He was holding the ball too long, he wouldn’t come off this initial read – it’s okay to throw the ball away and live another day. Instead, he was taking sacks. I thought that was going to kill them. Deshaun Watson was ready to be the MVP. He was going to save Clemson. I thought Deshaun Watson was fantastic. I don’t want to say Jake Coker was better, but Jake Coker got better as the game went on.”
Nearly two-thirds of Coker’s passing yards went to tight end O.J. Howard, who finished with five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Howard had touchdown receptions of 53 and 51 yards and had a crucial 63-yard catch-and-run that helped Alabama ice the game in the final minutes.
Howard, who had just 33 catches for 394 yards on the season and hadn’t scored a touchdown since his freshman year in 2013, helped offset a monster day by Deshaun Watson. The Heisman finalist finished 30-of-47 for 405 yards, four touchdowns and one interception and led Clemson with 20 carries for 73 yards.
In fact, Watson is the No. 1 reason why Dodd has Clemson No. 1 in his 2016 rankings.
“I think it’s real easy,” Dodd said. “They have the most talent coming back from a championship run. Anytime you’ve got Deshaun Watson, you’ve got a chance, and a lot of those guys on defense return.”
As Dodd pointed out, though, it’ll be interesting to see how much longer Dabo Swinney stays at Clemson. Dodd called Monday “an audition” for Swinney, 46, one day replacing Nick Saban, 64, as head coach of the Tide.
“If you had to pick a guy right now,” Dodd said, “it’d be him.”