The perfect season ended in the perfect place.
It seemed almost inevitable that LSU’s fourth national championship would be won in New Orleans, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the sound of thousands of hometown voices boomed into the stadium’s deepest chambers.
Those voices will echo for years to come in memory of the night No. 1 LSU (15-0) broke No. 3 Clemson (14-1) down in a 42-25 victory in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Did you hear them in the fourth quarter? When the game seemed all but officially won? When Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow hurled a 24-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Terrace Marshall, when the final score of the night made the LSU’s lead cozier than a front porch on a spring afternoon?
“Callin’ Baton Rouge” piped from the speakers. Most of the crowd screamed the infamous “Neck” chant over whatever the Golden Band from Tigerland happened to play. Burrow was shown on the jumbotron, waving his arm up and down to the chant, and the crowd roared approvingly for the Ohio State transfer who has become Louisiana’s adopted son.
Burrow’s title match performance — 30-of-47 passing for 449 yards and five touchdowns — was classic even for Heisman standards. The 6-foot-4, 216-pound senior set NCAA records for single-season touchdown passes (60), completion percentage (77.6), and his five touchdown passes tied Southern Cal’s Matt Leinart for the most thrown in a championship game.
And it was the New Orleans native, Ja’Marr Chase, who broke the game open.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound wide receiver from Rummel High recorded nine catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns — a record total of receiving yards that set a CFP Championship Game record.
Fireworks exploded upon the final. A chant of “LSU-LSU-LSU” rained down. Somewhere in the midst of it all was LSU coach Ed Orgeron, the Larose native who brought his home state school back to the pinnacle of college football.
There was a time when it didn’t seem so inevitable.
No, Clemson seized control of the title match with early aggression.
Lawrence completed a deep 35-yard pass to Justyn Ross to the LSU 46 on the second play of the game.
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda expected Clemson to counter blitzes with screens — he’d seen them do so 80 percent of the time this season — and Travis Etienne took a screen 19 yards to the LSU 27.
Then LSU’s defense tightened. On third-and-8, outside linebacker Michael Divinity returned for the first time since he departed the team for disciplinary reasons before the Nov. 9 Alabama game. He rushed off the left edge, clearing a space for safety Grant Delpit to sack Lawrence and force a punt to the LSU 7.
And that’s where LSU’s offense began solving one of its toughest puzzles of the season.
Clemson’s defensive front successfully brought pressure, and its defensive backs pressed LSU’s receivers tightly, creating a strong box in which Burrow and the offense struggled to break out.
Within the first three drives — which LSU started at its own 7 and 11 and 39 — the Tigers gained just 17 yards on 11 plays. Burrow was 5-of-10 passing for 32 yards in those drives.
Clemson’s dynamic defender Isaiah Simmons swatted Burrow’s first official pass incomplete. Burrow was sacked. LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was dropped for a loss of two.
LSU punted three times, and its defense just couldn’t contain Clemson any longer.
Starting at his own 33, Clemson’s Lawrence completed a play-action pass 42 yards to a wide open Braden Galloway — an explosive play that was placed at the LSU 40 due to an illegal blindside block. The penalty only slowed Clemson from scoring four plays later on a 1-yard touchdown run by Lawrence to lead 7-0 with 6:34 left in the first quarter.
LSU had trouble getting pressure on Lawrence in key situations.
On second-and-14 at the Clemson 21 in the first quarter, Lawrence scrambled for eight yards, making LSU linebacker Patrick Queen miss as he created a manageable third down conversion. Later, he evaded outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson in the backfield to complete an 18-yard pass to the Clemson 47 — eventually setting up a 52-yard field goal.
Then, on the next drive, Clemson was backed up to its 4, and Lawrence had a clean pocket and completed a 24-yard pass to Ross. The explosive plays continued. Etienne rushed for 29 yards off the right edge, which forced LSU to hone in on the running back from Jennings. Etienne pitched a reverse to Tee Higgins, who barreled through two LSU defenders on a 36-yard touchdown run.
Clemson led 17-7 with 10:38 left in the first half.
LSU had never trailed by two scores this season.
How did the puzzle finally break?
The Biletnikoff Award winner: Chase. He produced 133 of LSU’s first 192 total yards. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound wide receiver separated himself from Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell and caught a 52-yard touchdown that tied the score at 7 with 1:36 left in the first quarter.
Then, once LSU was down two scores, Chase fought past Terrell again for a 56-yard reception before he was tackled at the Clemson 3 — where LSU remained until third-and-goal.
And that’s when the LSU offense — yes, this LSU offense in the year 2020 — went with an empty set. Burrow snapped the ball alone in the backfield, and it was he who ran in the 3-yard touchdown that pulled LSU to within three, 17-14.
Burrow’s designed runs opened LSU’s offense. On the following drive, he scrambled and slid for a 10-yard gain. So began one of the most efficient drives for LSU of the night: Burrow hit Justin Jefferson for a 22-yard reception; Edwards-Helaire spun out of a tackle on a sideline pass for 23 yards; Jefferson lowered his shoulder into a safety for an 18-yard gain to the Clemson 14.
And then there was Chase.
Burrow lofted a fade to the deep right corner of the end zone, and Chase hauled in the 14-yard touchdown reception that set LSU ahead 21-17.
Burrow fist-pumped. LSU led for the first time of the game.
On third-and-10 at the Clemson 35, Burrow gashed Clemson again on the ground with a 29-yard run in the open field. Burrow pitched a six-yard touchdown pass to Thaddeus Moss.
LSU led 28-17 at halftime.