NEW ORLEANS – It’s not a terribly long drive from Oxford to New Orleans, but for the LSU defense it’s half a world away.
The injured and limited defense that was gashed countless times bythe Ole Miss offense almost two months ago was nowhere to be found here Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Instead, LSU, a team worthy of the “DBU” mantra, bested Clemson and its multi-faceted offense 42-25 in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
Last year in winning its second national title in three years, Clemson used that wealth of talent to hammer Alabama 44-16, going a remarkable 10-of-15 on third down conversions.
This year against the Bayou Bengals, Clemson was a paltry 1-of-11 on third downs. When LSU forced Clemson behind the chains, it kept them there. Down the stretch Clemson’s inability to keep its offense on the field limited its chances and kept it from catching up to LSU’s offensive surge.
“The plan on third down was to get pressure,” LSU safety Jacoby Stevens said. “We know Clemson has to get the ball in Travis’ (Etienne) hands in multiple ways. We just tried to stop that. At the end of the day the concepts just stay the same, they just try to put window dressing on it and cover it up. But the concepts are the same and I feel like we snipped it out and took advantage of it.”
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron agreed with Stevens’ assessment.
“Yeah, I think the one thing is we stopped Etienne,” Orgeron said. “I thought our guys did a tremendous job of not letting him run the football on us. We knew Trevor was going to make some plays. They made some plays downfield, but I talked to Coach Aranda, had a tremendous plan to give pressure, but we never panicked, and those three-and-outs and those punts were critical to the ballgame.”
As a result, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was limited to an 18-of-37 passing performance for 234 yards and no touchdowns. On third downs, he was just 2-of-10 for 20 yards.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the LSU defense. Clemson opened the game with 67, 40, and 96-yard scoring drives to take a 17-7 lead at the 10:38 mark in the second quarter.
The LSU offense that normally had provided the defense all the cover it needed had been losing the field possession game and couldn’t get rolling. It felt like Clemson had LSU nearly on the ropes. The LSU fans, despite outnumbering Clemson in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, were being drowned out.
But the LSU sideline didn’t panic.
“There was no stress,” LSU safety and Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit said. “Just a next play mentality. And that’s what we did. Guys would say ‘my bad, my bad, next play’. And we moved on.”
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and the rest of the coaching staff proved why they’re among the best in the country.. They made the necessary adjustments and held Clemson scoreless in the final 10 minutes of the half, allowing LSU’s offense to come off the mat and take a 28-17 lead into the locker room.
“You know, at the end of the first half, Coach O sat us down and calmed us down,” said LSU linebacker Patrick Queen, selected as the game’s defensive MVP. “We were really anxious being out there, so we just all gathered together and played team defense.”
Queen led LSU with 8 tackles, including six solo and 2.5 for a loss and half a sack.
“Coach Aranda had a great game plan since day one when we started studying them and we trusted him and went to work on it,” Queen said. “Together, to be able to make those kind of plays, I want to give God the glory for it. I want to thank Coach O for believing in me to be able to play this position.”
Clemson scored on its first drive following halftme, which was assisted by two 15-yard penalties on a kick catch interference and a personal foul. Clemson went for two-point conversion and made good on its attempt, pulling within three points at 28-25.
But that’s as close as it would get. Once again Aranda and company adjusted, and this time it would be all LSU needed to coast to the victory. Clemson would not score in the game’s remaining 19 minutes and 11 seconds.
“We knew all we needed to do was play 30 more minutes of football and it would be ours,” Delpit said. “And it is. Forever.”