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Clemson Comes Up Short

By Dave Holcomb
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Uncharacteristic mistakes saw the Clemson Tigers come up short of back-to-back National Championships.

The last two years for Clemson football will go down as one of the greatest runs in college football history. But on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- ironically, the location of Clemson’s last loss on Jan. 1, 2018 -- the Tigers made uncharacteristic errors on their way to a 17-point loss.

LSU defeated Clemson, 42-25, to cap off a perfect 15-0 season. The victory gives LSU its fourth national championship and first since 2007. Clemson finishes the year 14-1 (29-1 since the start of the 2018 season).

Clemson hung in with LSU better than just about any other team all season. The Tigers from South Carolina led by 10 points in the first half, which was the first time all season that the Tigers from Louisiana trailed anyone by double digits.

But overall, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence just wasn’t sharp enough to lead his team to victory. He completed under 50 percent of his passes, going 18 for 37 for 234 yards in the loss.

Lawrence didn’t threw an interception -- the one he did throw was overturned because of a penalty -- but he didn’t have a touchdown pass either. He rushed for 49 yards and a score too.

The sophomore quarterback overthrew far too many of his passes -- 13 according ESPN. He seemed hyped up, trying to put a little extra on each pass, and as a result, his accuracy suffered.

In large part because of the accuracy problem, Clemson went 1-for-11 on third-down attempts. During the regular season, Clemson converted 46.5 percent of its third downs, which was the second-highest rate in the ACC.

As badly as Lawrence overthrew the ball at times, LSU’s secondary was tremendous in coverage as well, giving the sophomore signal caller very small windows to complete passes. LSU almost completely shut out the ACC’s No. 3 receiver Tee Higgins.

In order for Clemson to win, Higgins needed to have a big game, but he made just three catches. Higgins’ biggest play was a 36-yard end around run for a touchdown during the first half.

Lawrence and Higgins finally connected for a 48-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but the officials called the play back on a questionable offensive pass interference penalty. But while that play could have potentially made the score look a little better, it probably wasn’t going to change the outcome.

Defensively, Clemson allowed more yards in the second quarter of the national championship (269) than they averaged in their first 14 games (264.1). LSU outgained Clemson 628-394.

Those statistics don’t suggest only a handful of mistakes plagued Clemson’s defense, but similar to its offense, Clemson wasn’t good defensively in areas it has been all season.

Things started to unravel for Clemson on Monday night late in the first half.

Trailing by four with 2:23 remaining in the second quarter, Dabo Swinney’s squad had a chance to get off the field and give Lawrence at least a chance to cut into the deficit. Instead, Clemson committed a pass interference penalty on third-and-19.

With the fresh set of downs, LSU drove down the field for a touchdown and led at halftime by 11.

The Clemson red-zone defense wasn’t what it has been all year either. Before the final possession where LSU kneeled the ball at the Clemson 6-yard line, LSU scored touchdowns on five of its five red-zone possessions.

Before Monday, Clemson possessed the second-best red-zone defense in the country. Swinney’s team had allowed only 10 red-zone touchdowns in its first 14 games. LSU reached half that total in one game.

In the semifinals against Ohio State, Clemson held the Buckeyes without a touchdown on three red-zone trips, which was a leading factor for why Clemson was even in the national championship.

Clemson defense failing to stall even one of LSU’s drives short of the goal line in the red zone was a major reason why the SEC’s Tigers were able to pull away in the fourth quarter.

The game could have been out of hand earlier. After scoring late in the second quarter, LSU then received the second half kickoff, threatening to increase its lead to three scores. Clemson’s defense forced a punt, though, and then Lawrence drove the offense down the field for a touchdown.

That pulled Clemson within three, but Lawrence and the offense wouldn’t score again.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had an excellent initial game plan. He deployed seven defensive backs early in the contest -- it helped that Burrow and LSU were pinned close to their own goal line on their first two possessions -- and Burrow started the night 2-for-5 with eight yards.

Coming out of halftime, the Clemson defense repeated that feat, forcing three-and-outs on the first two LSU possessions of the half. But those were LSU’s only three-and-outs of the game.

Burrow finished 31 of 49 with 463 yards and five touchdowns. He set a new FBS record with 60 touchdown passes this season.

LSU proved Monday that it was the best team of the 2019 season and perhaps one of the best in college football history. The better team won Monday night.

But at the same time, Clemson had its chances. It was going to take a near-perfect performance to knock off such a talented LSU team. Clemson was far from perfect in this title matchup.