LSU finishes what it starts, 15 games of perfection and a national championship

NEW ORLEANS – The home table was set. Again.

An entire state, bursting with passion and pride, held its collective breath waiting to explode in unbridled joy. Again.

The French Quarter was prepared to party all the way to the start of Mardi Gras. Again.

A magical season of magnificent perfection awaited its historical punctuation mark. Again.

But unlike that nightmare nine years ago here in Mercedes-Benz Superdome when No. 1 LSU’s 2011 unbeaten season crumbled in a crushing 21-0 loss to No. 2 Alabama in the BCS national championship game, the homestate Tigers flipped the déjà voodoo Monday night.

Playing in the same selfless, confident and consistent manner as it had done all season, LSU won its fourth national title in history with a 42-25 victory over No. 3 defending national champ Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game.

LSU Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow rallied his team from a 10-point second quarter deficit, throwing for 463 yards and five TDs as the nation’s No. 1 offense racked up 628 yards against the nation’s No. 1 defense.

“What we did tonight can’t be taken away from us,” said Burrow, the fifth-year Ohio State grad transfer who closed his two-year LSU career with a season for the ages completing 76.3 percent of his passes for 5,671 yards passing and an NCAA single-season record 60 touchdowns “This national championship will be remembered for a long time in Louisiana. To do it in New Orleans is even more special.”

LSU joined last year’s Clemson squad as the only college teams in the last 121 seasons to finish 15-0. Also, LSU snapped Clemson’s 29-game win streak after ending last season stopping UCF’s 25-game victory string in the Fiesta Bowl.

“Our focus has been one game at a time, one day at a time, and our guys did a tremendous job,” said LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who just five seasons ago was out of coaching looking for a job. “Now, I think that this team is going to be mentioned as one of the greatest teams in college football history, 15-0, one of the greatest teams in LSU history, led by some of the greatest players. Give them all the credit.

“The usual offensive playmakers showed up big for LSU, which became the first team ever to beat seven top 10 ranked teams in one season.

Besides Burrow, the game’s offensive MVP who set seven CFP national title game records including most total offense (his 521 yards was easily more than Clemson’s team total of 394), wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase had nine catches for 221 yards and two TDs, tight end Thaddeus Moss had a pair of TD catches, wide receiver Justin Jefferson had nine receptions for 106 yards and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran for 110 yards on 16 carries.

Throw in LSU’s defensive effort led by game defensive MVP linebacker Patrick Queen — LSU outscored Clemson 21-0 in the final 10:38 of the first half and 14-0 in the game’s last 25:49 — and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was appropriately dazzled.

“A beautiful football team that earned it,” Swinney said of LSU. “They played a beautiful game. I thought they played with tremendous character and class and just will to win. That’s what championship games are all about. So hats off to them.”

Certainly Clemson, which finished 14-1, had LSU searching for answers after the home team fell behind 17-7 with about 10½ minutes left in the first half.

Burrow had played all season like he had computer chip implant, but wily Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables definitely got in Burrow’s head.

LSU was forced to punt on four of its first five series, and was in an unfamiliar position of fighting for its life in the first half. Apparently, it was just the challenge that an unruffled Burrow and company needed.

“Their defensive coordinator was getting in his calls late and everything he checked into was working perfect,” Edwards-Helaire said. “We had a lot of three and outs and ultimately they had a lot of three and outs.

“It was a defensive battle early. The team that won would be the offense that would adjust quicker and make plays. Our offense is like a knife with five blades. One of them is going to cut you.”

On LSU’s final three possessions of the first half, it outgained Clemson 257 to 38 yards. Burrow scored on a 3-yard run with 9:17 left, then threw TD passes of 14 yards to Chase with 5:19 remaining and 6 yards to Moss with 10 seconds left for a 28-17 lead at the break.
To Clemson’s credit, it cut LSU’s lead to 28-25 with 10:49 remaining in the third quarter on a 3-yard Travis Etienne TD run and quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s 2-point conversion pass to wide receiver Amari Rodgers to make it one-possession game.

Momentum began tilting back toward Clemson, but the LSU defense and Burrow grabbed the game back.

Facing a third-and-11 at the LSU 41, he hit Chase on a screen pass that went 41 yards to the Clemson 16. A 7-yard pass to Jefferson (in which Clemson starting linebacker James Skalski was ejected for targeting) and a 4-yard TD pass to Moss handed LSU a 35-25 lead with 5:13 left in the third quarter.

Burrow extended LSU’s cushion to the eventual final score with his pinpoint 24-yard scoring strike to Terrace Marshall with 12:08 left in the game.

In the end, the confusion Burrow had dissecting Clemson’s defense early in game disappeared as he turned the contest into LSU’s usual pitch-and-catch. Clemson, like LSU’s 14 previous victims this season, didn’t have nearly enough answers.

“We feel like you can’t hold us down forever,” Burrow said. “We’re too explosive, our coaches are too good, our players are too good, our O-line is too good. It just took us awhile to figure it out.”

LSU’s defense grew stronger and stronger as the second half progressed, pressuring Lawrence into a sub-50 percent passing performance (18-for-37 for 234 yards). Clemson finished the night just 1-of-11 in third-down conversions.

“LSU did a good job,” said Lawrence, a sophomore who suffered his first loss as a college starter after 25 straight wins. “They brought a lot of pressure, they did a good job mixing up the coverages. They had us schemed up pretty good.”

Once the game hit the 10-minute mark, LSU put the game in the hands of Edwards-Helaire, who banged and churned his way through Clemson’s defense gaining yardage and keeping the clock running.

LSU could have scored again with second-and-goal at the Clemson 4, but twice mercifully took a knee to end the game.

For a team that finished the season with single-season NCAA records of 726 points and 8,526 yards, it was one of the few times LSU took its foot off the accelerator.

But at last, the job was finished. Well, for now.

“I want to be here at LSU for a long time and win many championships.” Orgeron said, “Everything fell into place, and we’re just getting started. This is not the finish, this is just the beginning.”

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Ron Higgins

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