NEW ORLEANS — Clemson relied all year on a strong defense and quarterback Trevor Lawrence to give itself a shot at a second straight national title.
Both let them down against LSU and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve stood in front a team with a loss,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after LSU’s 42-25 win Monday night.
Things started Clemson’s way as Lawrence led the Tigers to a 17-7 lead the first 20 minutes. Then Burrow and his collection of offensive playmakers ran past the country’s best defense — just like they did to everyone else all season.
Clemson’s bid for a repeat — and a dynasty of three titles in four seasons — ended in a flurry of pitch-perfect touchdown passes from Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase and Thaddeus Moss.
“We could’ve played better,” said Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the Butkus Award winner. “Obviously, we didn’t play as good as we wanted to. Too many big plays.”
And those plays came in a hurry.
The secondary for Clemson (14-1) surrendered just nine touchdown passes in its first 14 games. It gave up three to LSU in the opening half, including a pair as the Southeastern Conference champions went from 10 points down (its biggest deficit of the year) early in the second quarter to being up 28-17 at halftime.
In the end, Clemson gave up 1,144 yards in its two playoff games, including a semifinal win over Ohio State. It had allowed just 245 per game in its first 13.
Burrow picked on what was the strength of Clemson’s defense, its back seven.
Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell, among the team’s most consistent and talented defenders, was shredded by Burrow and the LSU receivers.
Terrell was outrun by Chase on his first score, a 52-yard touchdown that tied things at 7-all. Then he was the victim once more as Burrow practically placed the ball in Chase’s hands just a few feet over Terrell’s shoulder for a 14-yard scoring pass as LSU went ahead for good, 21-17.
Clemson’s confusion on the back end was evident on LSU’s final first-half TD as Moss was standing by himself in the end zone awaiting Burrow’s simple 6-yard flip to make it 28-17.
“You can’t hold us down forever,” Burrow said.
Clemson did, for a while.
LSU had only 6 yards its first two possessions and punted four times as the Atlantic Coast Conference champs built that 17-7 lead.
Coordinator Brent Venables had gotten the most he could out of versatile defenders like Simmons, safeties Tanner Muse and Nolan Turner and cornerback K’Von Wallace. After losing four linemen to the NFL from last year’s national champions, Clemson used Simmons and Wallace to speed rush from further back.
In this one, LSU’s line was up to the task and Burrow had plenty of time to find open receivers.
Clemson’s offense didn’t help much either. Lawrence was just 18 of 37 for 234 yards and no touchdowns, repeatedly overthrowing receivers. He was also sacked twice and hit hard on several other occasions.
It was just the second time in 30 college games Lawrence did not throw a TD pass. He said LSU did a good job getting pressure on him.
“But at the end of the day, I just didn’t play well enough for us to win,” he said. “Too many missed plays by me, missed a lot of receivers and it just wasn’t my night.”
Lawrence and the defense had always been able to close things out before in winning the past 29 games. Not against LSU, which wore out the Tigers and watched Clemson’s leading tackler, linebacker James Skalski, ejected because of a targeting call in the second half.
Don’t count Clemson out. The 6-foot-6 Lawrence will return for his junior year after going 25-1 as a starter for the past two years. He and the Tigers will be strong favorites to return to the CFP championship game.