NEW ORLEANS — Freeze the frame half a second before the throw that lifted Joe Burrow from legend to LSU immortal Monday night, and you’ll notice two things.
First, no one in the picture was open. Second, as Burrow brings his arm back, Clemson linebacker James Skalski is a yard and a half away, ready to wallop him with a shot to the ribs that would have made many quarterbacks question whether it was worth the price.
But, of course, Burrow delivered anyway. In that moment, he delivered a touchdown to Thaddeus Moss that struck the first blow to Clemson’s championship aura. He delivered a performance for the ages against the best defensive plan anyone’s thrown at him. He delivered a perfect Heisman Trophy season capped off by a national title won right on the edge of Bourbon Street. And in delivering his program to the promised land for the first time since 2007, he wrote his own legacy as the most popular player to ever wear an LSU uniform.
Of all the great players who have ever worn the purple and gold, from long-ago legends like Billy Cannon to Odell Beckham and a host of modern-day stars, none of them can measure up to what Joey Burrow did Monday night, cementing himself as a forever name in this endlessly passionate football state with a 42-25 victory over Clemson.
And given what Burrow had done all season, this dream run couldn’t have couldn’t have ended any other way.
“That guy played a perfect season,” receiver Justin Jefferson said. “Every single week he performed. He didn’t show any signs of doubt or anything. That guy is something special.”
Just like he was against Texas, against Florida, against Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma, Burrow was better than anything the bluebloods could throw at him. It didn’t matter that he was once the third-stringer at Ohio State who never got a chance or the transfer at LSU who last season looked destined to be a middling SEC starter.
For 15 games, no single player has dominated a season the way Burrow did this year, marrying a relentlessly aggressive offensive system with a player who had the physical skill, the intelligence and the moxie to figure out everything that was thrown at him.
And because Burrow was so accurate and so tough in every environment and under every circumstance, LSU attacked every possession like the end zone was its life force, as if failing to reach it as fast as possible would reveal its mortality.
In the end, nobody could really wound LSU’s offense enough to see whether it would bleed.
Like the rest of them, Clemson tried. Goodness, they tried.
For about a quarter, it looked like the best defensive coordinator in football might have solved him. Clemson’s Brent Venables was throwing odd fronts at Burrow, bringing pressure from different angles, lining up havoc-causer Isaiah Simmons all over the field and presenting a picture of chaos and confusion that was unlike anything Burrow had seen before.
But in the end, down 17-7 to Clemson and having punted on four of its first five possessions was as close as anyone would come this season to making LSU look ordinary. Because at that very moment, when LSU needed a score the most, everything special about this team began to show up.
Moments of stress? Nah, not for Burrow.
“He was chillin,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said. “That’s just Joe. You’ll never see him bat an eye. You’ll never see him get rowdy rowdy because that’s not him. That’s not what we do. We talk about it. We understand what’s going on. We figure it out and go out and execute.”
Perhaps predictably, Burrow adjusted to the pressure. He started finding the matchup that most favored his team, going after Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell time and again because he simply could not cover Ja’Marr Chase. Unlike Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in last year’s championship game, Burrow made Venables pay.
LSU scored 21 points on the final 22 plays of the half, the last of which was the bullet of an 6-yard touchdown he released just a hair before Skalski clobbered him to take a 28-17 lead into halftime.
“That’s just Joe,” said Moss, who was there to take the touchdown strike that Burrow got off anyway. “I knew he got hurt. They said he took a hit. It’s just a testament to Joe. He’s been like that all season. That’s just Joe.”
And by the end, what looked like Burrow’s toughest test was a masterclass: 31-for-49, 463 yards, 5 touchdowns. He also set the single-season record for 60 TD passes.
The program that struggled for more than a decade to find a quarterback to match the talent it had accumulated everywhere else now owns the greatest single season any college quarterback has ever played. Better than Tim Tebow. Better than Cam Newton. Better than Deshaun Watson. Better than all of them.
The last time LSU played in a national championship game — in this very building in 2011 against Alabama — it could barely crawl across midfield.
This time, they left a haze of celebratory cigar smoke from the winning locker room, led by the Ohio kid who yearned for a shot to play quarterback at a big-time program.
Nobody ever saw something like this coming from Burrow. But no matter how long they play football in this state and drink bourbon outside Tiger Stadium on Saturdays in the fall, nobody will ever forget it. .