How L.S.U. Beat Clemson to Win the College Football National Title

A win in Monday’s title game erased any remaining doubts that Ed Orgeron’s team had arrived as a dominant force in the sport.

How L.S.U. Beat Clemson to Win the College Football National Title
L.S.U. quarterback Joe Burrow holds the trophy as his team celebrates a national title with a win over Clemson.Credit...Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana State, which opened the college football season as an underdog in its own division, won the national championship on Monday night behind a vigorous offense, outlasting Clemson, last year’s title winner.

With its 42-25 victory in the Superdome, L.S.U. claimed its first title since the 2007 season and quieted skeptics — within its own fan base and beyond — who questioned whether the Tigers had truly re-emerged as a national power.

But now L.S.U. has finished its campaign at 15-0, having conquered Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Texas. It defeated Georgia for the Southeastern Conference championship in early December and then disassembled Oklahoma in one of the semifinal games that set Monday’s matchup in New Orleans. In the title matchup, the team rallied from a 10-point second-quarter deficit to defeat Clemson, which had won 29 consecutive games and was seeking its third national championship in four seasons.

L.S.U. rose to the top of college football with its embrace of a spread offense, introduced after years of underwhelming passing statistics in Baton Rouge, and with a quarterback, Joe Burrow, who used his final year of eligibility to throw dozens of touchdowns, dazzle audiences with Houdini-like escapes from blitzing defenders and win the Heisman Trophy in a landslide.

Burrow also had a platoon of stars around him. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a tailback from Baton Rouge, entered Monday’s game with more than 1,300 yards to his name this season, his first as a starter.

The standout wide receivers, Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, each logged more than 1,400 yards, and the offensive line emerged as a strength after starting the season confronting questions over how well it could control the line of scrimmage.

And Ed Orgeron, the Louisiana native in his third full year at the helm of L.S.U. football, went from went from a man seen as overmatched and perhaps unprepared, even among the team’s fans, to being the university’s third consecutive head coach to win a national title.

It was the fourth football championship in L.S.U. history, joining those won by the 2007 team (coached by Les Miles); the 2003 version (coached by Nick Saban); and the 1958 Tigers, who were coached by Paul Dietzel and finished the season with a win over Clemson in New Orleans.

Trailing 42-25 with the game in the fourth quarter, it looked for a moment as if Clemson had managed a touchdown, with Tee Higgins moving beyond a defender and tapping his way into the end zone. But an official threw a flag for offensive pass interference, having noticed Higgins all but hugging one of the other team’s Tigers, and the scoreboard remained the same.

Just about 10 minutes to go at the Superdome.

With a 24-yard pass to Terrace Marshall Jr., Mr. Heisman Joe Burrow has his fifth touchdown of the game.

Burrow has thrown for 442 yards with nearly a quarter left.

Just before the end of the third quarter, Clemson got a crucial lifeline while trailing by 10: L.S.U. missed a 45-yard field goal, the ball going wide right. With less than two minutes to play in the third quarter, Clemson dodged having even more of a mountain to climb.

But it’s still a hill of decent size.

So L.S.U. sputtered through its first two possessions of the second half. Clemson scored and added a cherry of a 2-point conversion. The once-daunting margin collapsed to 3 points.

L.S.U. looked to be wheezing through another drive — an incomplete pass, a penalty, a run that didn’t gain much — when Burrow launched a 43-yard pass to, almost predictably at this point, Ja’Marr Chase.

It took just a bit longer for L.S.U. to score, in part because of the targeting-related ejection of James Skalski of Clemson. But Burrow connected with Thaddeus Moss again for a 4-yard touchdown that was upheld after a video review.

The score was Burrow’s 59th touchdown pass of the season, setting an Football Bowl Subdivision record for a single season.

L.S.U.’s advantage is back to two scores, at 35-25 in New Orleans.

One of the maxims of sports betting is that gamblers love points. The casinos played that up for this game, setting a sky-high total of nearly 70 points for the combined score between Clemson and L.S.U.

But guess what? Sports books set it even higher for the second half. William Hill US now says the expected total for the game is 80 points.

Even if the game slows down with a leader running the clock, it’s not hard to fathom the game getting there. At 28-25, the teams needed only four more touchdowns to break that ceiling.

As for the favorite? That’s still L.S.U., but by 11 as of halftime.

Perhaps you have noticed Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator: He’s the coach who always seems to have to be pulled by his pants back toward the sideline.

He makes for good memes, but his style is crucial to how Clemson plays defense: by giving offenses little time to contemplate what they’ll face after the snap. And at some moments tonight, Clemson has given L.S.U. plenty of problems, especially early in both halves.

“They kind of get lined up, and he gets the call in so late, and it just seems like they’re in the right call so many times,” said Dave Clawson, Wake Forest’s coach, who predicted that one of the title game’s most compelling matchups would be the Clemson defensive perimeter against the offensive perimeter for L.S.U.

Derek Mason, the Vanderbilt coach who has known Joe Burrow for so many years that he calls him Joey, said he thought Clemson’s defensive timing was a lifeline for the Atlantic Coast Conference champion.

“If Clemson can give static looks and launch from those different platforms and be able to make Joey hold the ball just a little bit,” he said, “Clemson’s pass rushers may have an opportunity with the speed and the athleticism.”

Clemson’s style did not go unnoticed during L.S.U.’s preparations for the championship game.

“It doesn’t worry me at all, but it’s also something to think about,” said Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a tailback. “This will pretty much be the first time that we’ve faced a team that throws in a call so late, and being able to not let them get the call, I think, is going to be something big.”

But Venables deflected the idea that his approach was especially sophisticated. Instead, he said, it was all about trying to even the balance of power when an opponent has the ball.

“They’re trying to get in the best looks on offense and trying to prevent negative plays, and we’re trying to not make it easy on the opponents by opening up our playbook for them,” he said. “We’re trying to do just what the offense does. I don’t know why we get so much attention for it.”

In a halftime interview, Ed Orgeron, L.S.U.’s coach, suggested his team had solved the Clemson riddle: “We figured out what they were going to do; now we’re moving the football.”

Maybe Orgeron spoke too soon. After the intermission, Clemson promptly stopped two L.S.U. drives.

Clemson has 45 sacks on the season, and none was bigger than one that stopped Joe Burrow’s first possession of the second half. Clemson then got a 15 yard penalty on the punt and an opportunity to reset.

Trevor Lawrence took advantage, leading his team down the field for a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to pull closer, 28-25.

Travis Etienne finished the drive with a 3-yard run for a touchdown.

We texted Dave Clawson, Wake Forest’s coach, as the bands played at the Superdome to take his measure of the first half.

“LSU’s ability to win vs press and make contested catches was critical for them,” Clawson, whose team shares a division with Clemson, replied. “Burrow is making plays with his feet — not just the draws but avoiding the sacks.”

Clemson, Clawson noted, had drawn up some excellent pressures to make L.S.U. uncomfortable, but Burrow had proven effective at eluding them.

“Very fun game to watch,” the coach concluded.

We agree, even if its up-and-down nature may crunch our deadlines.

Football can be an awfully fickle sport: L.S.U. started the national championship shrinking under the swarming pressure of Clemson’s defense.

L.S..U. lost yardage on its first possession. A second drive gained just 7 yards. With the third possession, L.S.U. finally picked up double-digit yardage: 14.

Then the team from Baton Rouge rumbled — no, roared — to offensive life. The fourth drive took just more than 90 seconds, but it went for 70 yards and a touchdown. After another brief scoring hiatus, L.S.U. used its next three possessions to score 21 points.

So after 30 minutes of play, an L.S.U. team that struggled at the start has 359 yards, some 269 of them in the second quarter, and 28 points. L.S.U. went to the locker room with 16 first downs to its stat sheet, 13 of them in the second quarter. And five different receivers have caught passes for L.S.U., most notably Ja’Marr Chase, who has more than 160 yards already.

L.S.U. won the toss but deferred so it could get the ball to start the second half. Will Clemson’s defense, the nation’s best this regular season, have an answer after the intermission? It needs one, and it needs one soon.

Joe Burrow followed his blockers for 29 yards down to the 5-yard line, then slammed a hard pass into the end zone to Thaddeus Moss, the son of famed N.F.L. receiver Randy Moss.

L.S.U. has had a big turnaround in the second quarter, scoring three straight touchdowns after being down 10 points.

L.S.U. leads 28-17 at halftime.

Joe Burrow’s arm has bubbled to life, and L.S.U. leads in New Orleans.

Burrow threw an incomplete pass to start the L.S.U. drive, but he rushed for a first down immediately after. Four complete passes, all for double-digit gains, followed, including Ja’Marr Chase again coming up big for L.S.U., which was playing a no-huddle offense, on a pass lofted into the end zone.

And so a six-play possession that started with a bit of unease warped into a touchdown drive to put L.S.U. in front. It’s 21-17 as we approach halftime.

The crowd went a bit wild.

Just about as soon as we finished watching the big-screen replays of that Clemson touchdown, Joe Burrow and Co. stormed up the field with two passes to Ja’Marr Chase that moved L.S.U. 72 yards in short order.

With L.S.U. perched inside the Clemson 5 and on third down, the offense dialed up a quarterback run.

It worked with ease, with Burrow tumbling into the end zone from just a few yards out, and it’s a one-score game in the Superdome with Clemson out in front, 17-14.

Coming into tonight’s game, the most open secret in Louisiana might have been that the L.S.U. defense was nowhere near as talented as its offense.

Clemson is starting to show why that gripe about L.S.U. has been accurate.

Tee Higgins just scampered 36 yards along the far sideline, bumping away from defenders along the way, for a touchdown that featured a leaping dive into the end zone.

But Higgins only scored after a few other big plays, including a 24-yard pass and a 29-yard run.

17-7, Clemson, with plenty of time to go in the second quarter.

A field goal! We expected touchdowns — and we’ll probably still get those — but Clemson landed a 52-yard field goal to take the lead, 10-7.

Clemson’s kick, the longest in the history of the College Football Playoff, capped a nine-play drive that went for 40 yards. But those 3 points might matter a great deal by the end of the night.

Let’s talk about a really good first quarter where the playing field was leveled.

L.S.U. came into this game as a juggernaut because they dominated the Southeastern Conference.

Despite being the reigning national champion, Clemson was a significant underdog — as many as 6 points in many casinos.

But there is no doubt that this game is between the two best teams in the nation. Clemson’s defense is better than it has received credit for (because of its soft schedule). There is a reason the Tigers from South Carolina won the title last season.

The Joe Burrow magic did not stay behind in Baton Rouge.

Here’s the scene that led the Superdome to erupt: Second and 2. L.S.U. on its own 48.

Then Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, one of the signal caller’s favorite wide receivers, linked up for 52 yards after a quick strike along the sideline.

Tie game in New Orleans. Wonder what Bourbon Street is like now.

Just when it seemed like we might be settling into a defensive struggle, Clemson put its first points on the board.

They came courtesy of Trevor Lawrence, the sophomore quarterback who sprinted into the end zone not long after he completed a 19-yard pass to Justyn Ross, a wide receiver who had been frustrated with his play during the Fiesta Bowl last month.

Lawrence certainly showed his athleticism and speed during the drive, but L.S.U., it seemed, could not stop stubbing its toes via penalty flags: an illegal block gave Clemson a 15-yard gift. A personal foul didn’t help matters for L.S.U.

Surprised there has been so much punting? Don’t be. Clemson and L.S.U. haven’t had to punt much this season, but this is the type of game where that particular skill might come into play more often than usual.

Our writer Billy Witz wrote about this going into the semifinal between Clemson and Ohio State.

Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said then that field position would be critical: “It’s the game within the game.”

That has been true early in this final.

L.S.U. had an ugly first possession, ending it dangerously close to their own end zone.

The good news for L.S.U. is that it hasn’t given up a safety.

The bad news is, well, the L.S.U. offense looks mighty shaky by any standard. Through its first two possessions, L.S.U. has gained a grand total of 6 yards. That is not a typo about the team that had the nation’s best offense this season.

Still, its fans have plenty of reason for optimism.

Archie Manning has seen some compelling L.S.U. offenses in his almost half-century of living in south Louisiana. But on the phone last week, he could not stop marveling over the one that L.S.U. assembled for this season.

“They mix it up: They mix up formations, they mix up personnel, they run it good enough to keep the defense honest,” said Manning, a quarterback for Mississippi who was the No. 2 pick of the 1971 N.F.L. draft. “They’ve got really good looking wide receivers. They’re not 5-11, 180; they’re 6-3, 215.”

Let’s consider some of its resources:

  • Joe Burrow. You’ve probably heard of the L.S.U. quarterback. If you haven’t, he won the Heisman Trophy and has thrown 55 touchdown passes — including seven during the first half of a semifinal game against No. 4 Oklahoma. He is widely expected to be the first pick of this year’s N.F.L. draft.

  • If Burrow’s accuracy is as pinpoint as usual, expect to hear the names Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. Although 20 L.S.U. players have logged receiving yards this season, Jefferson and Chase have 2,993 of them — more than half the team’s total.

  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a running back who did not see much action in the semifinal game because of injury, but he has run for more than 1,300 yards this season. His yards per carry statistic is similarly elite: He gains an average of 6.6 yards, putting him in the top 20 in the country.

And all of that with an offensive line that started the season facing plenty of skepticism.

The A.C.C. champion opened with a trick play that turned into a loss. But then, as L.S.U. jumped offside, quarterback Trevor Lawrence connected with Justyn Ross for a 35-yard gain. Two more completions — one for 19 yards, another for 3 — followed.

But on third down, L.S.U. pressured Lawrence, sacking him for a loss of 10 yards. Mired on the L.S.U. 40, Clemson had no real choice but to punt.

So both teams can have some reasons for confidence — and fear — after a single Clemson possession.

Trump appeared on the field at the Superdome for the singing of the national anthem, the second time in his presidency he made a stop at college football’s title game. It’s also the second time this season he has gone to an L.S.U. game.

Joined by his wife before a crowd that roared with his entrance minutes before kickoff, the president stood on the 40-yard line, right hand over his heart, after a reverberating cheer: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Trump stopped in Atlanta in 2018, when Alabama and Georgia played for a title, and stood on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the national anthem. Loud cheers and a smattering of jeers greeted Mr. Trump at that game, but fans of all political persuasions groused over the long security lines associated with a presidential trip.

When Trump traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in November, university officials opened Bryant-Denny Stadium earlier than usual in a bid to relieve congestion.

Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, said he learned of the president’s plans to attend Monday’s game roughly a week in advance and that White House officials did not specifically say why Trump wanted to come.

“Maybe, like so millions of others, the president just loves college football,” Hancock said. “It will be an honor to have him here.”

Mr. Trump is familiar with both Clemson and L.S.U. beyond games: He has welcomed Clemson to the White House twice to mark national championship victories, and he recently called Ed Orgeron, the L.S.U. coach, to congratulate him on his team’s semifinal victory over Oklahoma.

“He was very pleasant to talk to, very complimentary of our football team, our coaching staff, complimentary of the way the state of Louisiana has rallied around us, and was complimentary to the way we played all year and wished us good luck in the game,” Orgeron said last month.

The call was a surprise.

“They told me the president’s office called, and I thought it was the president of the university,” Orgeron said.

No, he was told, the White House was on the line.

“I said, ‘O.K., here we go,’” Orgeron said.

Blinder reported from New Orleans; Drape reported from New York.

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