GLENDALE, Ariz. — Trevor Lawrence has always made football look easy.
Bigger than other quarterbacks at 6-foot-6, with a stronger arm and an unflappable mind, he breezed through youth football and became the No. 1 recruit in the country. As a college freshman at Clemson he won every game, precociously tearing apart Notre Dame and Alabama in the College Football Playoff last season. As a sophomore he led the Tigers to 13 more wins without a loss, 12 of them blowouts. It all seemed so effortless.
Finally, Saturday night in a fierce Fiesta Bowl, here came the hard stuff.
Here came Ohio State—big and physical and fast, hammering Lawrence and his teammates, taking a 16-0 lead that could easily have been 28-0 if the Buckeyes had finished drives. Here came adversity. Here came the proof that there was nobody in the Atlantic Coast Conference who remotely prepared Clemson for what it was facing.
And here, at the end, came the most pressurized drive of Lawrence’s nearly stress-free career. Backed up on their own 6-yard line and trailing the Buckeyes by two points, just three minutes and seven seconds separated the Tigers from defeat. Given Clemson’s place-kicking travails, just getting into field goal range wouldn’t be good enough—the Tigers needed a touchdown.
There had been nothing easy about this night. Lawrence was knocked out of the game for a play after one hit—a game-turning play, when Ohio State cornerback Shawn Wade was ejected for targeting after a helmet-to-helmet hit, sustaining Clemson’s first scoring drive. The kid with the rocket arm, which almost certainly will make him the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, had been forced to run a career-high 16 times for a career-high 107 yards, absorbing more hits than he ever had in a college game.
The golden boy revealed his competitive grit in this alley fight of a game.
“It showed what he has inside of him,” said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, on his way to become the head coach at South Florida after this season. “He’s a competitor. He knew this game was going to be different.”
Now, 94 yards from the end zone, the Tigers needed their 20-year-old golden boy to be more than tough. They needed him to be clutch. When coach Dabo Swinney called the offense together before going out onto the field, “Trevor kind of took over the huddle,” Swinney said.
“I love you guys,” Lawrence told his teammates. “Let’s go finish strong.”
Lawrence finished with a drive so strong that it will go into the Clemson annals alongside the one Deshaun Watson authored to beat Alabama for the national championship in 2016. Four plays, 94 yards, eight points.
Ohio State counterpart Justin Fields got the final chance at it, but the Buckeyes’ final drive ended with a Fields interception in the end zone—his second turnover, compared to none by Lawrence. End result: a 29-23 College Football Playoff semifinal victory, as Clemson’s 29-game unbeaten streak survived its toughest test.
“Most fun game I’ve ever been a part of,” Lawrence said on the field afterward, running a hand through his luxurious blonde hair.
He ran or passed for all 94 of the yards on that final drive: an 11-yard dart on a slant pass to Justyn Ross; an 11-yard run on a zone read; a 38-yard strike to Amari Rodgers; and then, “Popeye” happened.
“Popeye” is the name of the game-winning play—a pop pass to running back Travis Etienne off a run fake by Lawrence. The call came from the head coach himself.
“Coach Swinney called that,” Scott said. “He’s been waiting on that.”
Truth be told, the Tigers hadn’t executed the play very well during practice. Swinney said Lawrence “threw it in the dirt two or three times.” Lawrence said, “Throughout the week I was like, ‘I don’t like this play.’ “
But the setup was there, with Ohio State forced to honor the threat of Lawrence’s running. After faking the QB counter, Lawrence rose up and delivered the ball to Etienne circling out of the backfield. Etienne got behind Buckeyes safety Josh Proctor, made the catch at the 24-yard line and then broke a couple tackles near the goal line to send Clemson to the national championship game for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
And Trevor Lawrence passed one of the last unanswered questions about him. He’s won a ton of games the easy way, and now he won an elimination game the hard way.
“We know what kind of young man he is,” said co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “He’s a champion. He’s got ice water in his veins.”
He’s also got more pep in his step than anyone—especially Ohio State—was prepared for.
Lawrence is a good athlete who has run selectively as a collegian. There wasn’t much reason to risk running a generational talent in blowout wins, so Clemson didn’t.
But when studying the Buckeyes, the Tigers staff realized that Lawrence’s underappreciated mobility could be a major factor. Watching film in their hotel room Friday night, Lawrence and his backup, Chase Brice, knew the quarterback running game would be a significant part of the call sheet.
“Utilizing the legs,” Brice said. “We noticed that in certain downs, there would be some opportunities.”
The biggest opportunity presented itself late in the first half. Trailing 16-7 after being drastically outplayed, Clemson probably would have been happy just to get to halftime. But on a second-and-10 from their own 33, Elliott called a quarterback draw that became the longest run of Lawrence’s career.
After breaking the line of scrimmage, Lawrence put on one move that got him into the clear—and then he just kept going, all the way to the end zone. Lawrence veered toward the sideline and was ready to run out of bounds, but the pathway to six points remained clear.
“That was some speed I didn’t think he had,” said offensive guard John Simpson. “That boy, he’s a workhorse.”
“Thoroughbred,” chimed in tackle Jackson Carman. “Secretariat.”
After accepting the trophy as the Most Outstanding Offensive Player of the game, Lawrence was given the full folk hero treatment on the field. Scott asked him to pose for a picture with his family. Then quarterback coach Brandon Streeter did the same, gathering all of his QBs. Lawrence spied some friends in the stands and came over to take a selfie with them, then worked his way around the ring of adoring Clemson fans in the front rows.
He pulled off a white wristband and threw it into the crowd. James Kendrick, a 14-year-old Clemson fan, caught it and stuffed it in the pocket of his hoodie, with a look on his face that strongly hinted this was the coolest moment of his young life.
“Amazing,” Kendrick said, beaming.
Then Lawrence was gone, into the locker room, where Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” blared. That’s been the antithetical crusade of the reigning national champions, inflating slights into something they could rally around.
They’ll take that chip on the shoulder with them to New Orleans next, where Clemson will actually be a legitimate underdog against LSU. Lawrence will, for once, be the less-celebrated quarterback on the field in that game, the supporting actor to Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. But he’ll relish the challenge.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Lawrence said.
Including the hard stuff. For once, football wasn’t easy for Trevor Lawrence Saturday night. He won anyway.