TAMPA — With six seconds remaining in the College Football Playoff title game on Monday night, Clemson had the ball at the Alabama two-yard line trailing by three points. The Tigers lined up in a three-receiver set, with Hunter Renfrow in the slot and Artavis Scott split wide to quarterback Deshaun Watson’s right. Watson took a shotgun snap, Scott ran into Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey at the goal line, and Renfrow planted his left foot on the hash at the two yard-line and sprinted unabated toward the pylon.
Watson delivered the easiest of his 420 passing yards of the night, firing a two-yard dart to Renfrow for the game-winning touchdown in Clemson’s thrilling 35–31 comeback victory over Alabama.
The play is known in the Clemson playbook as Orange Crush, and it will have varied legacies depending on which campus it’s being discussed. In Alabama, it will be remembered as a divisive dream crusher, ending the Crimson Tide’s 26-game win streak, preventing them from winning back-to-back national titles and ending their run at an unprecedented five championships in eight years. “It's like a death in the family,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said.
For Clemson, Orange Crush will be commemorated on T-shirts and blown up in man caves for decades. It has been 35 years since Clemson last won a national title, and Dabo Swinney’s first came against his alma mater in a game for the ages. Everyone in Raymond James Stadium on Monday night agreed that Clemson’s upset of Alabama will leave a timeless legacy alongside Vince Young’s dash that toppled the USC dynasty in the 2006 Rose Bowl. “That has to be,” Swinney said, “one of the greatest games of all time.”
And thanks to the nebulous nature of the play Clemson ran for the winning touchdown, it can be debated in perpetuity as well. In Clemson, Orange Crush is known as a rub route. That’s the optimists’ term for Scott’s engagement of Humphrey that prevented Alabama’s Tony Brown from covering Renfrow. By the time Renfrow broke out to the pylon, he was so open that he could have tied his shoe and still been uncovered. “I knew if [Scott] make his block and get the little pick, Renfrow was going to get in the end zone,” Watson said. “I kind of smiled, and I knew before I even snapped the ball it was going to be a touchdown. All I had to do was just get the ball to him.”
In the eerie quiet of the Alabama locker room, the play wasn’t viewed with the same ingenuity. Humphrey stood in the back corner of the locker room wearing sunglasses with #TAMPABAY2017 on the side and a white “True Savage” T-shirt. A year ago, Humphrey ended up on the right side of the most pivotal play in the national title game when he caught Alabama’s deft onside kick attempt in the fourth quarter that turned the game.
One year later, he ended up downwind and did such a good job concealing his bitterness that he complimented himself—“I tried to [have] a pretty good attitude there”—when his interview ended. Humphrey began the play lined up against Scott on the outside in man-to-man coverage. Scott’s engagement with Humphrey created a screen that took Brown a $6 Uber to get around. “I was guarding my guy, and they picked,” Humphrey said. “I’m not a ref, so I can’t really answer that.”
When asked about Clemson running the same play earlier in the game, Humphrey added: “The other was little bit more illegal. I mean they both were somewhat illegal, but I’m not a ref.”
What’s the rub? Is it a nit pick? There’s plenty of catchy headlines here. But the bottom line is that Clemson meant to do it, got away with it and used the play—a common one for college and NFL teams to run in short-yardage situations—to win a national title. The crux of the rule cites an “obvious attempt to impede,” as officials famously called a pick on Notre Dame at the end of a game against Florida State two years ago that cost the Fighting Irish a victory in Tallahassee. “It definitely sucks,” Humphrey said. “On the field it seemed like it didn’t really just happen. I was pretty sad. You know now, you have to get over it. What’s happened has already happened. It’s not like you can go back and change anything. They weren’t going to change the call.”
Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt refused to raise the penalty flag as an issue: “My job is to stop them,” he said. “I didn’t do a very good job of that tonight.”
Renfrow finished the game with 10 catches for 92 yards with two touchdowns, outshined only by Watson’s 420 yards on 36 for 56 passing. Renfrow also saved an Alabama touchdown with a hustle play by tracking down Alabama’s Ryan Anderson after a Wayne Gallman fumble left Anderson charging toward the end zone and looking as if he’d score unimpeded.
Renfrow’s game-winning touchdown caps his ultimate walk-on story, as he declined scholarship money from Appalachian State to walk on at Clemson. “I've dreamed about it since I was a kid, all of us, and I couldn't let these seniors go down like we did last year,” Renfrow said. “Just love them, and just appreciative for the opportunity.”
Renfrow’s catch capped a drive in which Watson went 6 of 7 for 50 yards, answering the 30-yard touchdown run by Alabama’s Jalen Hurts that temporarily put Alabama ahead, 31–28, with 2:07 remaining. Early in the drive, Renfrow snagged a six-yard pass on the possession’s only third-down play to keep Clemson rolling. “He’s just a low-key sniper,” Scott said. “When you look at him, no one really thinks about, ‘Who is this white receiver?’ He lulls people to sleep.”
And with an assist from Scott and a bullet from Watson, Renfrow answered every Clemson’s fan dream. He’ll be their Orange Crush for eternity.