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After a slow start against Clemson, supersonic LSU zooms to the national championship

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/14/2020 Chuck Culpepper, Desmond Bieler
a group of people wearing costumes: LSU quarterback Joe Burrow holds the trophy Monday night. (Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo) © Sue Ogrocki/AP LSU quarterback Joe Burrow holds the trophy Monday night. (Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo)

NEW ORLEANS — Concluding five football months as one of the damnedest football comets anybody ever saw, LSU on Monday night won arguably the most exhilarating national championship any fan base ever witnessed. When its unforeseen 15-game storm of gorgeous lightning wound up filling a giant goose bump of a Louisiana Superdome, even a dynastic Clemson wound up looking amazed and bedraggled.

Once LSU’s now-usual flurry of kinetic stats and pinball-machine points landed on a 42-25 final score, it had done to mighty Clemson what it had done to haughty Texas, to resurgent Florida, to rugged Auburn, to the great Alabama and the brawny Georgia and the supersonic Oklahoma. All along from September, LSU had thrown and caught the ball with such rarefied precision that it probably should have brought along not a band but a symphony.

BOX SCORE: LSU 42, CLEMSON 25

“I think this team is going to be mentioned as one of the greatest teams in college football history,” said Ed Orgeron, the 58-year-old head coach with the stirring story arc from out of the game in 2014 to the top of it in early 2020, owing much to the humility he and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger showed in welcoming last offseason from the New Orleans Saints a then-29-year-old passing coordinator, Joe Brady. It ended with the confetti falling and the whole lot of them rising into a height forever in Louisiana consciousness.

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“So many people put so much work into this,” Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow said on the field, and then he mentioned everyone from the offensive line to the football-center chefs and dining-room assistants. From the interview dais, he said, “This doesn’t happen — this doesn’t come around every year.”

Nobody in the sport could do a bloody thing about the purple-and-gold blur of them, a reality pretty much amusing when considering that LSU spent a chunk of the young century lampooned for stagecoach football, as plodding through a futuristic era. LSU’s third national title in the last 17 seasons (all clinched at the Superdome) looked nothing like the first two and nothing like anybody imagined when the school promoted Orgeron to head coach as a choice that seemed secondary or tertiary.

In becoming the second 15-0 team ever from college football’s top tier, following Clemson last year, LSU left even Clemson (14-1), that five-time College Football Playoff participant, four-time finalist and two-time champion with a 29-game win streak and a quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who had never lost a college game, deluged in numbers.

Those included the 31-for-46 passing for 463 yards and five touchdown passes with zero interceptions from Burrow, who left his final college game strewn with his gasp-worthy precision and collected the most touchdown passes (60) anybody has ever had in a season. They included the now-accustomed churn of numbers for a frightening band of receivers, from Ja’Marr Chase’s nine catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns, to Justin Jefferson’s nine for 106, and tight end Thaddeus Moss’s five for 36 and two touchdowns, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s five for 54 (with 110 rushing yards, too), and the three for 46 for Terrace Marshall Jr., whose catches peaked on one notable play.

When Burrow sent yet another unimaginably pretty thing up to the right corner of the end zone with 12:08 to go, Marshall headed for the sky and then returned to earth with the thing snared. It gave LSU a 42-25 lead that seemed too much of a deluge. It meant it had fended off a Clemson third-quarter push that had closed a 28-17 halftime deficit to 28-25. It left Burrow riding a sideline exercise bicycle while revving up the crowd, this transfer who came from Ohio State in spring 2018 to help them exceed even their daydreams.

a group of baseball players standing on top of each other: Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney celebrates during the second half Monday. (David J. Phillip/AP Photo) © David J. Phillip/AP Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney celebrates during the second half Monday. (David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

He had thrived even on a night when the renowned Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables threw some puzzles at Burrow, such that Burrow said, “I honestly couldn’t figure out where they were blitzing from all night.” Yet Burrow also spoke this truth: “We feel like you can’t hold us down forever. I think we’re too explosive. Our coaches are too good, our players are too good, our O-line is too good.”

“They made some plays tonight that you’ve just got to tip your cap,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said.

Most of those plays came after a juncture 10 minutes and change toward halftime, when Swinney exulted on the sideline and ran into a jumping ram with an assistant, a sight looked almost like familiar choreography. Clemson led 17-7 on a 36-yard reverse run from receiver Tee Higgins, who took a pitch from running back Lyn-J Dixon and headed left toward open terrain, and it began to feel a little like January 2017 and January 2019, times of Clemson titles and Swinney’s considerable smile.

Then the storm returned. From that 17-7 inconvenience, LSU tore through Clemson as if it had not read Clemson’s astounding recent-years CV. It went 75 yards in five plays, 87 yards in six and 95 in 11 as its halftime lead reached 28-17. It beautified the field with a stream of breathtaking football plays, mainly Burrow passes that traveled downfield and tucked themselves precisely into the right arms and guts. “Yeah, I mean, he’s great,” said Lawrence, the Clemson sophomore quarterback who took his first college loss after two seasons of unbroken victories. “He’s unbelievable. He’s a great player — I’ve got a lot of respect for him and his (two-school) journey.”

As evidence of college greatness, there was the 56-yarder that dripped precisely over all the necessary shoulders to Chase, setting up Burrow’s three-yard designed run on third down. As the blur regenerated, there went 22 yards to Jefferson through the middle, 23 yards to Edwards-Helaire on a right-side fling that featured Edwards-Helaire’s typical dose of fight, 18 yards to Jefferson, 14 oh-my-god yards for a touchdown to Chase in the back corner of the end zone. Next came the audacious 95 yards, helped by an obvious interference penalty on third and 19, and steered along by 29 yards from another case of Burrow carefully and wisely choosing running lanes.

That left LSU at the Clemson 6-yard line 14 seconds from halftime and then, as Burrow took an hellacious whack from James Skalski, Burrow also zipped a pass to tight end Moss, standing alone just behind the goal line.

Moss snared the ball and remained still, as the purple-and-gold fans did not.

LSU had knocked down Clemson. Burrow had reached 58 touchdown passes by then to equal the 13-year-old single-season record Colt Brennan forged at Hawaii. Burrow had rushed eight times for 55 yards of importance. And LSU had done all that even after a muddled opening in which its little-known punter, a man named Zach Von Rosenberg, ventured out to the field to punt thrice in the first 18 minutes, equaling his total of attempts through the eight quarters against Georgia in the SEC championship game and Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl national semifinal.

Early on, Clemson’s coverage looked thick, and Burrow’s options looked thin. LSU spent two series camped out back near its own goal line. Meanwhile, Clemson took the wrappers off tight end Braden Galloway, back after a one-year suspension for a positive doping test, and Lawrence lofted him a pass that found him unmarked and wound up accounting for 42 yards.

Soon thereafter, Lawrence opened the scoring on a masterful fake and a brisk trip outside the right edge for a one-yard touchdown, and even after LSU got going with Burrow’s aria of a 52-yard pass up the right sideline to Chase, there came Higgins’s reverse with his closing dance along the left sideline.

That looked like something everyone had seen before. Then LSU presented one last night of something nobody had seen before.

Find our in-game highlights and updates, by Des Bieler in Washington, below.

a dog sitting in the grass: The LSU Tigers mascot celebrates after LSU defeated Clemson on Monday. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images) © Sean Gardner/AFP/Getty Images The LSU Tigers mascot celebrates after LSU defeated Clemson on Monday. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

12:10 AM: Lawrence commits fumble as end draws near

That might just have iced things. With LSU fans already in full throat while anticipating a national title, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence fumbled the ball after a 12-yard run with under four minutes left. LSU can take some time off the clock and start getting ready to party in New Orleans. (LSU 42, Clemson 25, 3:53 left in the fourth quarter)

11:50 PM: Lawrence is struggling

In contrast to Joe Burrow’s prolific outing, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is struggling. An early candidate to go No. 1 in the 2021 NFL draft, Lawrence has completed just 17 of 36 passes for 213 yards and no touchdowns, though he has rushed for a score. (LSU 42, Clemson 25, 10:10 left in the fourth quarter)

11:42 PM: Touchdown No. 6 for Burrow

Joe Burrow threw his fifth touchdown pass, a 24-yard strike to a leaping Terrace Marshall, to help push LSU’s lead to 17. Including a second-quarter run to the end zone, Burrow has accounted for six total touchdowns, in a fitting follow-up to his eight-touchdown performance in the CFP semifinals. In what, at times, hasn’t looked like a particularly outstanding effort for the Heisman winner, he has 442 passing yards against Clemson’s defense, which came in ranked No. 1 in scoring allowed. (LSU 42, Clemson 25, 12:08 left in the fourth quarter)

11:29 PM: LSU misses field goal

A pair of LSU mistakes might just have kept Clemson in the game. First wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who has been torching Clemson defenders all night, let a would-be 33-yard touchdown pass slip through his hands, and then LSU kicker Cade York missed a 45-yard field goal. Clemson takes over at its 27-yard line, still down 10. (LSU 35, Clemson 25, 1:40 left in the third quarter)

11:11 PM: LSU extends lead, Clemson’s Skalski ejected

LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss scored his second touchdown of the game on a four-yard pass from quarterback Joe Burrow, pushing LSU’s lead to 10 after the extra point. One play earlier, Clemson linebacker James Skalski was disqualified after drawing a flag for targeting, on a play in which he hit LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson with the crown of his helmet. It’s a major loss for Clemson, as Skalski is a leader of the defense who had been effective during the game in applying pressure to Burrow. Earlier in the drive, Burrow hit wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who is having a monster night, with a 43-yard pass on a 3rd-and-11 play. (LSU 35, Clemson 25, 5:13 left in the third quarter)

11:01 PM: Burrow off to another slow start

Just as he did at the start of the game, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow is beginning the second half in an underwhelming manner, as his team has a pair three-and-outs. ESPN reported that Burrow was injured on his touchdown pass just before halftime, and that the quarterback came out early during halftime to ride an exercise bike on the sideline, so it is possible that his mechanics have been thrown off just a bit. (LSU 28, Clemson 25, 9:12 left in the third quarter)

10:49 PM: Clemson scores first in second half

Clemson got exactly what it needed to start the second half, beginning with a three-and-out forced by its defense on LSU, which had gotten the ball first. Then Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence hit running back Travis Etienne for a three-yard touchdown, following that up with a pass to wide receiver Amari Rodgers for a two-point conversion. Clemson was helped on its six-play drive by two LSU penalties that cost it 30 yards. (LSU 28, Clemson 25, 10:49 left in the second quarter)

10:36 PM: Game on pace to go over four hours

If you thought “The Irishman” was long, the College Football Playoff championship game would like for you to hold its beer. After a first half that took almost two hours to complete, followed by an extended halftime in which gridiron heroes of the past were honored, the contest is set to take over four hours to complete, which would push it well past midnight on the East Coast.

10:22 PM: Halftime in New Orleans

Clemson, the defending national champion, is in trouble. The school allowed LSU to march 95 yards for a touchdown just before halftime and now is staring at an 11-point deficit, 28-17.

LSU’s Heisman-winning quarterback, Joe Burrow, got off to a slow start but eventually began to resemble the record-setting player expected to go No. 1 in the NFL draft. He led his team on three touchdown drives to close out the half, and he completed 16 of 28 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns, adding another touchdown and 55 yards on the ground.

The primary beneficiary of Burrow’s passing accuracy was wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who torched the Clemson secondary for 162 yards and two touchdowns on six catches. (As a reminder, we still have two quarters to play.)

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence could not quite keep up the pace, as he completed 12 of 22 passes for 176 yards but failed to throw for a touchdown. He did run for a score, as did Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins, while running back Travis Etienne proved hard to bring down while racking up 64 yards on 10 carries.

Making Burrow’s play even more impressive is that he has frequently been pressured by Clemson’s defense, particularly on blitzes by linebackers Isaiah Simmons and James Skalski. (LSU 28,Clemson 17, halftime)

a baseball player holding a bat in front of a crowd: Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on Monday. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) © Jonathan Bachman/AFP/Getty Images Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on Monday. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

10:11 PM: LSU scores just before halftime

Down 10 at one point, LSU is now up 11 after scoring a touchdown with just 10 seconds left in the second quarter. Quarterback Joe Burrow hit tight end Thaddeus Moss, the son of legendary wide receiver Randy Moss, for a six-yard score. LSU’s drive began at its 5-yard line but running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire quickly got his squad out of the shadow of its end zone with a 25-yard scamper. Then LSU was bailed out after an incomplete pass on a 3rd-and-19 play when Clemson was flagged for pass interference. (LSU 28, Clemson 17, 0:10 left in the second quarter)

9:51 PM: LSU takes first lead

LSU took its first lead of the game, 21-17, after quarterback Joe Burrow hit wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase for a 14-yard touchdown. It was Chase’s second score of the game and Burrow’s third, including a touchdown run by the Heisman-winning quarterback. Earlier in the drive, it appeared that running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire gained some extra yardage after going out of bounds, but the play was not reviewed. (LSU 21, Clemson 17, 5:19 left in the second quarter)

9:40 PM: Clemson receiver takes big hit

Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers was slow to get up after taking a big hit from LSU safety JaCoby Stevens on an overthrow by quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Stevens was not penalized on the play. (Clemson 17, LSU 7, 8:13 left in the second quarter)

9:36 PM: Burrow gets LSU back within three

Down by double-digits for the first time all season, LSU wasted little time in cutting Clemson’s lead to three, as quarterback Joe Burrow ran it in from three yards out on third down. Earlier on the five-play, 75-yard drive, he had completions of 16 and 56 yards to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who already has four catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. (Clemson 17, LSU 14, 9:17 left in the second quarter)

9:26 PM: Clemson flies downfield for second TD

Clemson began its sixth possession at its own 4-yard line, and four plays later it was in the end zone, courtesy of a 36-yard Tee Higgins run on which the wide receiver shook off tacklers. Before that, running back Travis Etienne rushed for 29 yards and wide receiver Justyn Ross caught a 24-yard pass. LSU is suddenly in a double-digit hole for the first time this season. (Clemson 17, LSU 7, 10:38 left in the second quarter)

9:12 PM: Clemson connects on long field goal

Clemson retook the lead with a 52-yard field goal by B.T. Potter. After making 12 of 20 attempts coming into the game, including two of two from over 50, Potter capped a nine-play drive that took the game into the second quarter. A few plays earlier, quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw an 18-yard pass on a 3rd-and-6 play to tight end Braden Galloway, who has been a surprising early weapon for Clemson. Hit with suspensions related to failed drug tests, Galloway had not played since October 2018 before suiting up, with no catches, in the CFP semifinal win over Ohio State. (Clemson 10, LSU 7, 13:43 left in the second quarter)

9:02 PM: Burrow no longer off to shaky start

Oh, so THAT’s the Heisman winner. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow had done little through three possessions, but his team’s fourth ended with him throwing a 52-yard bomb to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase for a touchdown. Add a Cade York extra point, and we have a tie game and, just perhaps, the opening of the ol’ floodgates. (Clemson 7, LSU 7, 2:20 left in the first quarter)

8:56 PM: Burrow off to shaky start

LSU’s Heisman-winning quarterback, Joe Burrow — he of the 55 touchdown passes this season and stellar performance against Oklahoma in the CFP semifinals — has gotten off to a slow start. Through three possessions, all ending in punts, he has completed just four of nine passes for 25 yards. The Clemson defense has had a lot to do with that, though, as it has brought fierce pressure thus far. (Clemson 7, LSU 0, 4:42 left in the first quarter)

8:47 PM: Clemson strikes first

After the game began with four punts, Clemson finally put some points on the board. Seven, to be precise, after quarterback Trevor Lawrence ran in a one-yard score. The big plays on Clemson’s five-play drive were long completions to tight end Braden Galloway — who was suspended for the entire season before getting activated in the CFP semifinals — and wide receiver Tee Higgins. (Clemson 7, LSU 0, 6:34 left in the first quarter)

8:35 PM: A punt-fest in the early going

The offensive fireworks figure to arrive soon enough, but for now the game has been a punt-fest, with all three possessions ending that way. LSU may be relieved that Clemson has not scored yet, considering Clemson drove deep into LSU territory on its first possession and then got the ball back at LSU’s 42-yard line. At that point, though, the team went three-and-out, and it pinned LSU deep again, this time at the 4-yard line. (Clemson 0, LSU 0, with 9:38 left in the first quarter)

8:28 PM: Clemson gets ball first, punts

LSU won the coin toss and elected to defer, giving Clemson the game’s first possession. Clemson began with an attempt at razzle-dazzle that failed when running back Travis Etienne took a lateral from wide receiver Justyn Ross but lost a yard on the play. Clemson then moved briskly to LSU’s 24-yard line, but lost more yardage from there, capped by a sack of quarterback Trevor Lawrence that pushed Clemson back to the 35. Despite still being deep in LSU territory, Clemson elected to punt, and LSU got the ball at its 6-yard line.

8:16 PM: President Trump, first lady Melania Trump greeted with cheers

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump were overwhelmingly greeted with cheers as they walked across the field of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the national anthem. While some in the crowd booed, it was a resoundingly positive reaction for the president — with loud chants of “USA!” and “four more years!”

South Carolina and Louisiana — the home to Clemson and Louisiana State, respectively — both voted for the president.

The couple entered the stadium from one of the tunnels and walked to the 40-yard line. The president could be seen mouthing some of the words to the national anthem and said “thank you” when leaving the field.

After the president was loudly and lustily booed during Game 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park, the president has embraced a series of college football games, getting cheers at the Alabama-LSU game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia and the national championship.

The president is expected to sit near midfield in a luxury box.

After the anthem, Trump was asked if he was pulling for LSU or Clemson.

“Both,” Trump said, giving a smile and a thumbs up.

By: Josh Dawsey

7:57 PM: President Trump arrives in New Orleans

President Trump has arrived in New Orleans and is en route to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for tonight’s game. He is expected to sit at a luxury box near midfield.

The president is traveling with a coterie of lawmakers from both states, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Spotted on the field before the game was Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who posed with Clemson players and could be seen cheering and clapping with the school’s fight song.

By: Josh Dawsey

7:49 PM: Both teams in good health

As the College Football Playoff championship gets underway, both No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Clemson appear to have avoided major injuries to significant players, with one exception.

LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the team’s leading rusher, was limited by a hamstring issue during LSU’s semifinal win over Oklahoma, but he was described earlier this week by Coach Ed Orgeron as “100 percent healthy.”

LSU right guard Damien Lewis left the win over the Sooners with an ankle injury, but he is set to start tonight. Similarly, teammate Terrace Marshall (shoulder) will start at one of LSU’s wide receiver spots.

Not so fortunate was Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, who suffered an ankle injury during Clemson’s CFP semifinal win over Ohio State. He was not in uniform during warm-ups and was ruled out shortly before kickoff. A fifth-year senior, Pinckney has been a staple in Clemson’s four-man fronts, and in his absence, the team will likely go with sophomore Jordan Williams.

LSU will also get a boost from the return of linebacker Michael Divinity, who was suspended for the past six games.

Ed Orgeron holding a phone: LSU Coach Ed Orgeron on Monday night. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) © Jonathan Bachman/AFP/Getty Images LSU Coach Ed Orgeron on Monday night. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

7:40 PM: A star-studded matchup

Burrow, a senior expected to go No. 1 in April’s NFL draft, will square off with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a sophomore who is an early favorite to go No. 1 in the 2021 draft. A transfer from Ohio State who posted modest numbers for LSU last season, Burrow and the entire offense have exploded this season, with his school averaging an FBS-leading 48.9 points per game while he leads the nation with 55 touchdown passes, also posting 5,208 passing yards and just six interceptions.

It is only in contrast to Burrow’s mammoth statistics that Lawrence’s numbers could appear at all modest — 3,431 passing yards with 36 touchdown passes and eight interceptions — but his squad was no slouch in the scoring department, averaging 45.3 points per game, fourth-best in the FBS. Clemson was more effective on the ground than LSU, racking up 3,446 rushing yards on a 6.4 per-carry average; LSU ran for 2,337 yards on a 4.9 average.

Clemson was led in rushing by running back Travis Etienne (1,536 yards and 18 touchdowns), and Lawrence more than chipped in with 514 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, including a 67-yard sprint for a score against Ohio State. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire paced LSU in rushing with 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns, but defenses were even more tormented by the team’s pair of stellar wide receivers, Ja’Marr Chase (1,559 yards and 18 touchdowns) and Justin Jefferson (1,434 yards and 18 touchdowns).

Clemson’s rise to national dominance in recent years has been overseen by Coach Dabo Swinney, who is relishing a rare opportunity to use his team’s underdog status as a rallying cry. LSU Coach Ed Orgeron — who famously sounds every bit the Louisiana native that he is — has garnered several coach of the year nods for his work this season.

LSU should enjoy something of a home-field advantage, given that the game will be played in New Orleans. The school’s two most recent national championships were won in the Superdome (in 2004 and 2008), but the last time LSU played there with everything at stake, after the 2011 season, it was blanked by Alabama.

A shutout for either side would be shocking in this game, given the offensive firepower at hand, but Clemson does bring the FBS’s No. 1 scoring defense (11.5 points allowed per game), and linebacker Isaiah Simmons won the Butkus Award for being the best at his position. LSU (21.6 points allowed) was 29th in that category, but it played a tougher schedule than Clemson and has the latest in a long line of ultra-talented secondaries, this time featuring safety and Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit as well as cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Kristian Fulton.

7:35 PM: What you need to know

When: Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

TV: ESPN.

Streaming: WatchESPN.

Line: LSU, -5½. 

Related slideshow: Best Photos of the 2020 CFP National Championship (provided by imagn)

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