Oddsmakers who had established LSU as a 13.5-point favorite missed the mark by only three touchdowns.
By halftime, LSU already had scored a dozen more points (49) than it did in the entirety of its SEC Championship game victory over Georgia 21 days ago in this same building. Before the half was done, the Tigers already had seven touchdown passes in their account, leaving the Sooners, now 0-4 in the past five years as a playoff team, in a state of shock at the break. This proud program doesn’t give up that many passing touchdowns in a whole game, like ever, in 124 years.
Is there an award higher than the Heisman Trophy? What LSU quarterback Joe Burrow did Saturday – 493 yards passing, seven passing touchdowns, one more touchdown by foot - should be of some interest to the Nobel committee.
And he likely cemented his place as the NFL’s first pick come the draft, if he is not made commissioner before that.
Are there deeds done in a relatively new building that may never be seen again, even if this one stands longer than most in Atlanta? When the great scoring floodtide was done, Burrow had thrown for his seven touchdowns before catching his breath in the second half, and Justin Jefferson had caught four of them (both Peach Bowl and New Year’s Six bowl records). As Jefferson kept screwing Oklahoma defensive backs into the artificial turf, totaling 227 receiving yards, it was difficult to keep in mind that he is but this team’s co-headliner at wide receiver (the other being Ja’Marr Chase, who leads the country in receiving touchdowns).
“It doesn’t surprise me they did the things they did,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said of his offense. “But it does surprise me they did it with the ease that they did.”
“You play really good teams in this playoff and when you don’t play your best ball, good teams are going to take advantage of it,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “LSU took advantage of us not playing our best ball.
It was, it must be noted, not all touchdowns and jubilation for the Tigers this day.
Just hours before the game, they were broadsided by tragedy when the daughter-in-law of the team's offensive coordinator was killed in a small-plane crash outside Lafayette, La.
A sports broadcaster in that southern Louisiana town, Carley McCord was en route to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl on Saturday morning when the private plane she was in crashed shortly after take-off from Lafayette Regional Airport. She was among five reportedly killed in the crash. McCord was the wife of Steve Ensminger Jr., son of the Tigers OC of the same name. From the coaches box on high at Mercedes-Benz, the elder Ensminger worked the playoff semifinal that same afternoon.
Asked if there was any doubt that Ensminger would be able to call the game, Orgeron said, “There was no question. He didn’t hesitate.”
Burrow said he didn’t find out about the tragedy until after the game. Same with Jefferson. Orgeron had tried to keep the news from his team. “Just the fact that he still stuck with the game and still called a great game, that just means a lot for the players,” Jefferson said. “I’m sorry for his loss, but we’re all with him.”
Ensminger’s offense, which had produced so many peaks this season, somehow found a quite different, even more breathless, altitude Saturday against the Sooners.
The difference between the two teams was spelled out clearly at the beginning. With the first possession of the game, Oklahoma went three-and-out, suffering a net loss of six yards as Jalen Hurts was sacked on the first play from scrimmage by LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson.
And, then, following a shanked punt of 23 yards, it was the Tigers’ turn to go three-and-in, a specialty of theirs. Their third play of the day was a 19-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to Jefferson. In literature, that’s what’s called foreshadowing.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
There were moments that on another night might have been seen as pivotal for Oklahoma in the early going. A pass-interference call the Sooners didn’t get. A razzle-dazzle play that lacked both and resulted in a Hurts interception. The expulsion of a key defensive back for targeting. The inability to build on the one early highlight, a 51-yard pass from Hurts to CeeDee Lamb that set up a touchdown-tying the score at 7-7. But all those just shrank into meaninglessness as LSU geometrically added to the scoreboard.
Here’s a brief play-by-play of the first half for the Tigers, for those of you who hunger for detailed specifics: TD; TD; TD; TD; TD; TD; TD.
Not like any of those drives were layups either, as they went for 42, 75, 86, 80, 55, 75 and 63 yards.
Nor were those first-half scoring passes all simple little pitches. Four of them traveled 30 yards or more, including a 62-yard play to Thaddeus Moss.
For all that, Burrow’s most impressive play in that first half may have been one that would bring back certain horrible flashbacks to Georgia fans. On a third-and-2 near the close of the first quarter, Burrow was flushed from the pocket and sent scrambling toward his own sideline. Surely, he would just throw it away. He had no clear vision downfield and was just a step or two from being ushered out of bounds. Anyone else would throw it away. But Burrow, as Georgia learned painfully, doesn’t waste plays, and this time he lofted a perfect 24-yard completion to Terrace Marshall. Burrow would finish that 86-yard scoring drive – giving LSU a 21-7 lead – before the first quarter was done.
Oh, and the Tigers had won the pregame coin flip and opted to defer in a show of trust in their defense. Up 49-14, they got the kickoff to start the second half. That was like a tax break for the wealthy. All the Tigers did with that opportunity was drive 74 yards in 13 plays – a relative forced march for this offense – with Burrow carrying the ball the final three yards for yet another score.
For the first time in four appearances at Mercedes-Benz – the previous three with Alabama – Hurts, the Heisman runner-up to Burrow, experienced a loss. He finished with 217 passing yards and two rushing touchdowns. An OK day by most measures, but not when the other guy is burning down the place.
“It hurts me. You talk about how much it means to you and the team, it’s supposed to hurt. This is not a good feeling. This is not a feeling I’ve felt before,” said Hurts. “It hurts me in my heart. When I decided to come to this school (transferring in his last year of eligibility) I told Coach Riley I’m going to win you a national championship and I failed to do that. Usually when you come up short in something you can come back, you can fix it. I can’t come back and fix it. I’ll never play college football again.”
At the opening kickoff, the building seemed decorated evenly in Oklahoma and LSU colors. Which meant empty seats where once Sooners backsides rested began showing up in startling numbers by the third quarter.
And Burrow’s day was done early, with 9:39 still to play. LSU was by then a most comfortable semifinalist, yet the quarterback still wanted more. After throwing for seven touchdowns, he said, “To be honest, it wasn’t my sharpest game. This guy (nodding toward Jefferson) was bailing me out on a couple throws that I missed. ... I’m excited to get back to practice and tune those things up.”
All that remained was to identify who next – Clemson or Ohio State in the night’s other semi – would dare try to drink from the fire hose that is the LSU offense.