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Initial Thoughts from New Orleans: Clemson Offense Stalls while Burrow Shines

The bitter makes the sweet sweeter.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Another trip to New Orleans, another negative experience. Both times, the game was there for the taking and Clemson laid an egg.

Despite being at a road venue, Clemson fans did all they could to fill the stadium and get loud. Early on, Clemson’s defense, which was playing with a whole new look (Denzel Johnson and Nolan Turner at safety, Tanner Muse and Isaiah Simmons closer to the line of scrimmage), looked to have found the ever-elusive answer to stopping LSU’s dynamic Joes, Burrow and Brady. They didn’t have any answers early meanwhile Clemson’s offense was moving the ball. Unfortunately, the Tigers’ drives stalled out. While Clemson won the early field position battle they didn’t cash in. Much like the Buckeyes settling for field goals in the Fiesta Bowl, not making the most of first quarter opportunities doomed Clemson.

When Clemson led 17-7, it felt like they were dominating and just needed to figure out how to finish more drives. Instead, Burrow and Brady solved Clemson’s defense and rallied to end the half with a lead. Much of that rally, and LSU’s success throughout the game, was a result of their WRs, particularly Ja’Marr Chase, burning Clemson cornerbacks. I didn’t doubt that LSU’s receivers were good, but only one year ago our DBs held up against Alabama’s insane WR corps. Terrell got burnt by Chase three times. Derion Kendrick had a brutal PI on a 3rd and 19. LSU’s receivers lived up to the hype.

Offensively, Clemson found some success over the middle-of-the-field with Braden Galloway, but didn’t go back to it. Instead, they relied on throws to the outside much like pre-UNC Clemson. It was vexing. Even more puzzling though was Clemson’s abandonment of the run. Etienne had some negative plays where he was hit in the backfield and it’s true that Clemson’s O-line is better at pass blocking than run blocking – that’s been the case since at least 2015 – but Etienne still averaged 5.2 YPC (with a long of 29, not big enough to skew the average badly). Why did he only run it 15 times? Why didn’t he get any carries in the fourth quarter, especially as Trevor started struggling more and more?

Trevor’s second half struggles were the most curious development of the night. I would have understood if he struggled against Ohio State (which he didn’t), because their pressure was relentless, but he had time in the pocket and overthrew his target 13 times - the most by any Power Five QB in over two seasons (according to ESPN). There were at least five overthrows that stood out from the stands, but maybe the worst was on a throw to Amari Rodgers. The errant throw forced Rodgers to leap and extend for the ball, which flew just over his fingertips. While he was outstretched and defenseless, an LSU defender dealt a nasty blow that required the trainers to check him out. Fortunately, he was okay. Later, Lawrence launched several balls out of bounds that were totally uncatchable for his star receivers on the outside. It’s hard to explain, but I’m sure we’ll hear plenty about it over the next eight months.

Following LSU’s flurry at the end of the first half, we saw Coach Venables adjust to bring more pressure at halftime. It worked and they got a huge stop to stay in the game. Clemson responded with a score, but the offense sputtered after that. Eventually, Joe Burrow adjusted just as he did after a slow start to the first half. At that point, Clemson was toast.

A few final thoughts:

  • The Tigers finished 1-11 on third down. I suppose that’s what we get for going 10-15 on third down against Alabama last year.
  • BT Potter nailed a 52-yard field goal. I never doubted him.
  • In our pre-game analysis, we noted that LSU’s defense was extremely talented and Dave Aranda is an excellent defensive coordinator. The past three games looked like they had finally put it together, but it was hard to weight those games over their first 11. We should have. They looked excellent.
  • Next year, the Tigers will be pre-season favorites. To improve from this season and reach that potential, the offensive needs WRs Joseph Ngata and/or Frank Ladson to take major strides so we can replace Tee Higgins. TE Braden Galloway had a nice showing. It would be a big boon to the offense if he can provide a real threat over-the-middle, as Clemson oftentimes missed that this season.
  • The 2020 defense, needs more from the defensive line. We were extremely fortunate to get so much production from true freshman Tyler Davis. He needs help though. Xavier Thomas didn’t reach the expectations most had for him after a strong freshman campaign. With DT Bryan Bresee, DT DeMonte Capehart, and DE Myles Murphy coming in next year, hopefully they push the D-line to improve.

Finally, it is only right to give a proper congratulations to the LSU Tigers. Unlike Buckeye fans who even at halftime were still on twitter saying they were better than both teams in the title game, we should acknowledge LSU was the better team. There were one or two blown calls (the offensive PI stands out most, but Edwards-Helaire stepping out of bounds was also egregious), but that’s not why we lost.

Congratulations to LSU on a much-deserved title. Burrow had the best season by a QB in college football history. I’m glad he’ll be banished to the Bengals. Joe Brady, the passing-game coordinator is also off to the NFL, going to the Panthers. Thank goodness. This was their window and they got their championship. I’m happy for Ed Ogeron, but otherwise this just stings. Alas, it is supposed to. The bitter makes the sweet sweeter. This awesome run from Clemson isn’t over. We’ll be back!