The game ended with LSU kneeling on the ball inside the Clemson 5. The winners didn’t need another touchdown. They’d long since proved their point.
And here’s the thing: Clemson didn’t play badly. It made one turnover, that coming on its final possession. It pressured Burrow as much as anyone had pressured him, sacking him five times. It started fast, which was a must given that the game was staged in the Superdome, which sits 80 miles from the LSU campus, and the crowd was 70-30 for the Bayou Tigers.
In the grand scheme, that start mattered not one whit. Clemson lost for the first time in 30 games. In taking two CFP titles over four seasons, it beat Alabama twice. For a decade, Bama has been the gold standard in the sport. For this one year, though, LSU ascended to a place no team has been. LSU was too good for Clemson, too good for everybody
This whiplash first half wasn’t quite as severe as the first 30 minutes of the Chiefs-Texans playoff game Sunday — though, come to think of it, the best player in Clemson history (Deshaun Watson) was involved in that — but it wasn’t far off. Not 18 minutes in, Clemson had outgained LSU 263 yards to 117 and outscored it 17-7. It was the SEC Tigers’ fattest deficit of the season. It was the first time they’d trailed since Oct. 26 at Auburn, seven games ago.
Twelve minutes later, LSU led 28-17, having outscored the ACC Tigers 21-0 and outgained them 242 yards to 25 over as dominant a stretch as one 14-0 team has loosed on another. Here were LSU’s three touchdown drives to close the half — 75 yards on five plays, 87 yards on six plays, 95 yards on 11 plays. Total time of those three possessions — six minutes, 52 seconds.
This, let’s remember, was against the nation’s No. 2 defense, the one that held Ohio State and Justin Fields to two touchdowns. But LSU had found a weakness in the Clemson secondary. His name: A.J. Terrell. He’s a junior from Westlake High. Poor Terrell was handed an impossible task: He was charged with guarding Chase, who’d won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best wideout but, having been the only key LSU receiver not to catch a touchdown pass in the semifinal obliteration of Oklahoma, had reason to feel overlooked.
Chase’s first-half numbers — six catches, 162 yards, two touchdowns. At halftime, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN: “A couple of throws to No. 1 (Chase) were just great plays. They’ve got great players.”
Well, yes. Burrow didn’t have the first half he’d had against the Sooners — no quarterback might ever have another like that — but he took a game going wrong and bent it his team’s way.
Burrow also took a hit to the midsection on his last throw of the half — a 6-yard touchdown to uncovered tight end Thaddeus Moss. The second half began with Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables ramping up his blitzes, his cornerbacks having proved they couldn’t cover Chase and Jefferson.
Clemson induced two LSU three-and-outs, Burrow being sacked on both possessions. The ACC Tigers moved smartly to a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to draw within 28-25, and here you thought of George Foreman against Muhammad Ali: Had the big bopper punched himself out?
Not this big bopper. On third-and-11 from its 41, LSU dialed up a call of surpassing beauty. Here came another Clemson blitz, and there went Chase flying down the sideline, turning a screen pass into a 43-yard gain. On the next play, Clemson linebacker James Skalski — who’d had four solo tackles and a sack – was ejected after a helmet-first hit on Jefferson. On the next, Moss snagged another touchdown. The lead was again double figures.
To its credit, Clemson steadied itself after — continuing with our boxing motif — nearly being KO’ed before halftime. It gave itself a second-half chance. That chance proved unavailing. After scoring to pull within three points, Clemson made two first downs, one via a penalty that overrode an LSU interception, the rest of the quarter.
Burrow and Trevor Lawrence are splendid quarterbacks who figure to be No. 1 picks in their respective drafts, but there’s no doubting who’s better now. Burrow never throws a bad ball. Lawrence spent much of the night delivering passes wild high. Clemson’s offense is very good; LSU’s is transcendent. Clemson did well to keep it close for as long as it did, but 2:52 into the fourth quarter it was close no longer. Burrow threw into the end zone for Terrace Marshall, who outjumped Derion Kendrick to make it 42-25.
That was that. Orgeron and his genius hire Joe Brady had thrust LSU, one of the last bastions of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, so far into the future that the new champs can be pardoned for believing this is 2525, not 2020. What an offense. What a quarterback. What a team.