NEW ORLEANS — “LSU.” “LSU.” “LSU.”
The chant began before the opening kickoff and lasted deep into the night. The Superdome was colored purple and gold, dressed for a party. It was more like a coronation.
From the season-opening blowout through the road win at Alabama, the record-setting rout at the Peach Bowl to the overwhelming performance in front of a partisan home crowd less than 80 miles from the Baton Rouge campus, it was a season Tigers fans won’t forget. The finish was straight out of their wildest fantasies, a 42-25 rout that snapped defending national champion Clemson’s 29-game winning streak and gave LSU its fourth perfect season and fourth national championship.
Joe Burrow, the quarterback from Ohio who had gone from an afterthought to enjoying a historical Heisman Trophy season, led the Tigers as he had all year. He tore apart Clemson’s top-ranked scoring defense, thoroughly outplaying counterpart Trevor Lawrence and handing him his first defeat as a collegian. Burrow set an FBS record with 60 touchdown passes — he threw 18 total his first three seasons — after tossing five more and running for another. Ed Orgeron, the 58-year-old coaching lifer from Louisiana, was roundly criticized as a poor hire three years ago. He had the foresight to make major changes, bringing in former Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady to overhaul an archaic passing game, and he got the better of Dabo Swinney on the game’s biggest stage, handing him his most lopsided loss since the College Football Playoff opener on the first day of 2018.
There were Louisiana kids everywhere coming up big. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase will be giving Clemson NFL cornerback prospect A.J. Terrell nightmares, catching nine passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. was all over Tee Higgins, limiting the projected first-round pick to two catches for 31 yards. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire produced 155 yards of offense. After a slow start, the defense harassed Lawrence, who would complete just 18 of 37 for 234 yards and no touchdowns.
Swinney couldn’t have scripted a better start to the second half for his team. A James Skalski sack forced an LSU punt, a penalty gave Clemson strong field position and it went to the ground, running five times for 23 yards, with Etienne scoring from 3 yards out to pull within a field goal.
LSU (15-0) responded, by converting another key third-and-long. Against an all-out blitz, Burrow got the rid of the ball quick, and Chase took the wide receiver screen 42 yards to set up Burrow’s fourth touchdown pass of the night, a 4-yard score to Thaddeus Moss. On the previous play, Skalski was ejected for targeting, for leading with the crown of his helmet, a costly loss for Clemson. Lawrence and Co. would punt on their next three possessions and enter the fourth quarter down 10. When Burrow found Terrace Marshall Jr. from 24 yards out, pushing the lead to 17 with 12:08 left, the result was no longer in doubt.
LSU started slowly. It punted the first three times it had the ball — three times as many punts as the Peach Bowl. Momentum began to flip on its next possession, as Burrow found his groove and Clemson’s pressure started to subside. Burrow found Chase down the right sideline, the first of several times he would beat Clemson cornerback AJ Terrell, for a 52-yard touchdown pass. It began of stretch for LSU in which it scored four touchdowns in five possessions, all at least 70-yard drives, treating Clemson’s top-ranked scoring defense like it was just another overmatched, unprepared sparring partner.
Clemson did take a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter, going 96 yards in four plays over just 1:32 on Tee Higgins’ 36-yard rushing score on a reverse. But from there, LSU owned the remainder of the first half. Burrow and Chase connected again on a long gain, this time picking on Terrell for 56 yards, and Burrow finished the possession with a 3-yard keeper, the first of many big runs for him, to slice the deficit to three. He would add a 14-yard touchdown pass to Chase, a deftly thrown ball into the back right corner of the end zone Terrell had no chance getting to.
After a second consecutive Clemson punt, LSU was pinned deep in its own territory at the 5-yard-line. Earlier in the game, Burrow was unable to do much in two such situations. But this time, he drove LSU 95 yards in 11 plays, converting key third downs twice, once running 29 yards on third-and-10. He capped it by finding a wide open Moss from 6 yards out, standing tall in the pocket and taking a big hit as he released the ball, leaving just 10 seconds on the clock.
The partisan crowd again began to chant “L-S-U, L-S-U.” Thirty minutes of football remained. But they had seen this story before. A national championship was merely a formality. Their perfect ending was on tap. The real party was about to begin.
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