Jan. 14, 2020
NEW ORLEANS — When Joe Burrow showed up on Louisiana State’s campus less than two years ago, wooed by a crawfish dinner, the irresistible charms of Coach Ed Orgeron and the opportunity to chase a dream that had been denied him at Ohio State, it was a marriage of convenience.
The gravel-throated coach needed a quarterback he’d never had before, and the baby-faced quarterback needed an offense to command after sitting on the bench for three years in his home state.
The leap of faith each took for the other came to a spectacular conclusion on Monday night, when L.S.U. capped a magical season with a 42-25 victory over Clemson to win the national championship at the Superdome.
L.S.U. did it largely by riding Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy last month and played to that standard on Monday, using his precise right arm, his nimble legs and his keen football mind to thwart a determined Clemson defense that had been the toughest to score against in the nation this season.
Clemson battered Burrow, sacking him five times, but he nevertheless torched the opposing defenders for 463 yards passing and five touchdowns, running in another as L.S.U. rallied from an early 10-point deficit. He celebrated afterward — like a number of his teammates — with a cigar.
And why not? The victory, which snapped Clemson’s winning streak at 29 games, capped one of the most rigorous unbeaten runs any team has ever made. L.S.U. beat six teams that were among the top 13 in the final regular-season College Football Playoff rankings.
“I talked to the team about the focus all week was just beat Clemson, not think of the magnitude, or hey, we’re going to win the national championship, all that,” Orgeron said, adding: “Now I think that this team is going to be mentioned as one of the greatest teams in college football history.”
L.S.U.’s rich history notwithstanding, it was hard to envision such a season coming with Orgeron, who had flopped at Mississippi and was passed over by Southern California when he was made its interim coach four years ago. The same could be said for Burrow, who could not win the faith of Urban Meyer, his former coach at Ohio State.
But Orgeron imbued in his team a swagger — “We coming,” he declared two years ago after getting beat by Alabama — and Burrow flourished with a full off-season surrounded by N.F.L. talent at every skill position, and a scheme that was poached from the New Orleans Saints. Burrow set an N.C.A.A. season record with 60 touchdown passes.
“The first time I met Joe, I didn’t know who this dude was,” said guard Damien Lewis, who arrived as a transfer the same time as Burrow. “This is our quarterback? He was silent, kept to himself. But once he got out there, I was like, ‘O.K., we got something.’”
That L.S.U. had something with Orgeron was not immediately apparent, either.
Five years ago, he was at home in Mandeville, across Lake Pontchartrain, watching his son play high school football and cooking up gumbo after being passed over at U.S.C. after leading the Trojans to six wins in eight games as the interim coach.
“I remember sitting on the sofa at my house, I had a year to reflect,” Orgeron said. “I remember watching SEC games going, I can compete with these guys given the right place.”
He added: “Man, people are going to talk and all that, but you can’t let it affect you. I use that as internal motivation. People, they tease me the way I talk, tease me the way I look and it’s kind of funny. The things that I was doing at Ole Miss I was ridiculed for, and now I punch myself in the jaw and everybody at L.S.U. likes it.”
L.S.U.’s offense took a few shots to the jaw before getting itself right.
Though Clemson was trying to win its third championship in four seasons, Coach Dabo Swinney was well justified this time in playing his familiar lil’ ol’ Clemson card, knowing the game would be played nearly 80 miles from L.S.U.’s home stadium.
Clemson fans turned out, as they regularly do, transforming one end zone into a sea of orange. But as anyone who roamed the streets of the French Quarter in the days leading up to the game might have surmised, this was L.S.U.’s town.
“It’s almost like we’re in another country,” Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons said on Saturday. “Everyone here is L.S.U. There’s not really many of us.”
Once the ball was kicked off, with President Trump in attendance, Clemson saw to it that the home-state crowd squirmed in the stands for a little while. Clemson unveiled a defense with three linemen, a lone linebacker and seven defensive backs, leaving Burrow uncertain where the frequent blitzes were coming from. And Clemson’s trick bag of an offense — with shovel passes, draws and reverses augmenting deep throws from quarterback Trevor Lawrence — set L.S.U. on its heels.
When Clemson’s rangy star receiver Tee Higgins busted through a pair of tackles, tiptoed down the sideline and dove into the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown on a reverse, Clemson had surged to a 17-7 lead — the largest deficit L.S.U. had faced all season.
“There was no rah-rah speech on the sideline; there was no, ‘Hey, we got to get going,’” Burrow said. “We knew what we had to do. We have a bunch of mature guys who understand the moment.”
Burrow got L.S.U. back on track — not so much with his arm as with his feet.
Two critical quarterback runs — both on third downs — turned the game.
The first came on third-and-goal when Burrow dashed 3 yards to bring L.S.U. within 17-14. The other came when he faced a third-and-10 and was out of timeouts with 21 seconds left in the half. Burrow took the snap, read the block of center Lloyd Cushenberry III and dashed 29 yards to the Clemson 6 with 14 seconds left. On the next play, Burrow hit tight end Thaddeus Moss wide open in the end zone just as he was leveled by a blitzing linebacker, James Skalski.
The touchdown, which put L.S.U. ahead, 28-17, with 10 seconds left in the half, was doubly crushing.
The drive had been kept alive when cornerback Derion Kendrick was flagged for interfering with Terrace Marshall Jr. on third-and-19 with L.S.U. pinned at its own 21.
“We made critical mistakes and they capitalized, that’s what good teams will do,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “They made us pay for it in the worst way.”
Another crushing sequence came late in the third quarter after Clemson had closed within 28-25. Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase (who finished with 221 yards and two touchdowns) with a quick bubble screen. With a huge block from Saahdiq Charles, Chase burst 43 yards deep into Clemson territory. One play later, Skalski was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit on receiver Justin Jefferson, and on the play after that, Burrow hit Moss for a 4-yard touchdown that restored L.S.U.’s margin to a more comfortable 35-25.
After the L.S.U. defense earned another stop, Burrow went to work again, depositing a pass just where Marshall could leap to catch it in the end zone. The reception, with 12:08 to play, did not end the game — but it surely felt as if the title was in sight.
The crowd roared moments later when a few strains of the L.S.U. anthem — Garth Brooks’s “Calling Baton Rouge” — was played. Shortly after, Burrow sat on the bench, a smile on his face and waved an arm up and down — mimicking a vulgar chant from the student section that had been banned. The students then followed suit, Burrow once again leading the way.