Apologies for the equine comparison, but this felt like the 1973 Belmont Stakes. For the first two races of that year’s Triple Crown, a noble horse named Sham chased an even greater horse to the wire. Come the third leg, Sham sensed he was running against an unbeatable foe, the upshot being that Secretariat won the Belmont by 33 lengths.
On a wild night in a wild city, a tough and gifted Clemson team made LSU work hard to win the national championship. LSU won the national championship by 17 points after trailing by 10. Final score: SEC Tigers 42, ACC Tigers 25. In the end, a fine team was overwhelmed by the most breathtaking offense the college game has beheld.
Over three postseason games, LSU faced Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson, teams ranked No. 5, 4 and 3 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. LSU swept those worthies by an aggregate score of 142-63. Over the three games, LSU gained 1,801 yards; quarterback Joe Burrow threw for 842 yards and — this is astonishing — 16 touchdowns.
Said LSU coach Ed Orgeron of Burrow: “He’s one of the greatest players in LSU history. He’s on a soapbox for the state of Louisiana and LSU. We are so grateful for Joe Burrow.
On Monday, the transfer from Ohio State completed the greatest season by a collegiate quarterback – the sport just completed its 150th season — by passing for 449 yards and five touchdowns and running for 58 yards and another score. Receiver Ja’Marr Chase caught nine passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Justin Jefferson, who’d scored four touchdowns in the first half of the semifinal against Oklahoma, had a quiet title game. He managed only — only! — 106 yards on nine receptions.
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.
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