NEW ORLEANS — Listen to Joe Burrow long enough—for an hour, say, at the College Football Playoff championship game media day—and something fascinating emerges. He has no verbal crutches—no “uhhh,” no “ummm,” not a single “you know” or “like” peppered into his parlance. If you interview enough athletes, you know this is highly unusual.
The LSU quarterback’s answers to every question were as crisp and timely as his passes from the pocket. He is, in a word, poised. Monday night, that preternatural poise will face what could be its biggest test: deciphering Brent Venables’ Clemson defense.
If you’re looking for a game within the game to watch, this is it. LSU’s ability to make a defense reveal its intentions presnap via formation vs. Venables’ ability to spring surprises on opposing quarterbacks after the snap with disguised coverages or blitzes. That figures to be the key battle of wits in this final game of the college football season.
“It’s going to be a fun chess match for me,” Burrow said.
This will be a matchup of grandmasters.
LSU leads the nation in scoring and total offense; Clemson leads the nation in scoring defense and pass defense. LSU scored a playoff-record 63 points in its semifinal demolition of Oklahoma; Clemson has held its last three playoff opponents (Ohio State this year, Alabama and Notre Dame last year) to season-low point totals. And the success of both units starts before the ball is snapped.
Joe Brady’s arrival from the New Orleans Saints as LSU’s passing game coordinator was the catalyst for the changes that have made the Tigers not just more explosive, but much harder for defenses to trick. In the new offense that transformed the program, LSU is very quick to line up, forcing defenses to do the same and giving both the LSU staff and Burrow time to survey what’s in front of them. Nick Saban made note of that before playing the Tigers, who ripped his Alabama team for 46 points and 559 yards, the latter the most the Crimson Tide have given up in five years.
“Their system is set up to show your hand,” said Venables, whose counter moves will be vital while the teams are at the line of scrimmage. There is going to be a lot going on in the few seconds between the ball being set by the officials and the ball being snapped.
LSU also is spending much more time in spread formations, relying on just the five offensive linemen for blocking, with wide receivers, tight ends and running backs freed to make plays. The claustrophobic formations the Tigers employed last year—two tight ends, fullbacks, etc.—only complicated Burrow’s job.
“It just brings more people in the box,” Burrow said. “That means more places where blitzes can come from. The spread makes defenses declare themselves.
“Something that I do best is get blitzes picked up. We wanted to go five-man protection, let me get the blitzes picked up, get the back out so you have five guys out (in pass routes). So when they blitz, they have one less guy in coverage. Lots of one-on-ones if I can get the blitzes picked up. That's been key for us this year, getting those five guys out.”
Something Venables does best is bringing blitzes the offense doesn’t see coming. Clemson can give a quarterback a lot to think about before the snap, and then something altogether different after it.
To use the phrase New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold inadvertently made famous while picked up on an in-game microphone, Venables wants the opposing QB “seeing ghosts.” Looking for blitzers who aren’t there, missing defenders dropping into zones, generally unnerved.
“Their coach does a really good job mixing up the looks,” Burrow said. “They’ll bring the same blitz, play different coverage behind it. I'm going to have to be on my game, reading the safeties, reading the coverages, seeing blitzes knowing what covers they usually like to play behind it post-snap to make sure that it is what I thought it was. That's going to be key for us.”
At least publicly, Venables does not sound overly confident in being able to confuse LSU’s Heisman Trophy winner.
“Joe Burrow,” he said, “is not some slappy.”
His receivers—Ja'Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall and Justin Jefferson on the outside, plus tight end Thaddeus Moss and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire—aren’t slappies either. Ohio State was able to win some one-on-one matchups against the Clemson secondary, and quarterback Justin Fields had enough time in the pocket most of the game to find some soft spots in coverage—especially along the sidelines.
So there should be some opportunities for Burrow and the Tigers. Venables emphasized the need for his defensive backs to “win early so they can win late”—in other words, being physical with the LSU wideouts off the line of scrimmage and not losing leverage.
Beyond that, Venables likely will need some big plays from his best player, hybrid linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, and he also had an interception (his third of the season) against the Buckeyes. He’s a multipurpose monster who can line up just about anywhere and bedevil an offense.
“I'm going to have to find him every play,” Burrow said. “Depending where they put him, they do a lot of different things. So you got to know where he is all the time to know what defense they're trying to do.”
With 16 days between games, Venables has had more time than in past playoffs to deconstruct LSU film and tinker with his gameplan. But Burrow also has had plenty of time to scrutinize the myriad looks Clemson presents.
Monday, at long last, the time for film study will be over. Joe Burrow will do what he does before every game: sling a white towel around his neck, lean back in the locker room and close his eyes. Sometimes he even falls asleep. Will he see Clemson ghosts in his sleep, or open LSU receivers making big plays?
The outcome of the national championship game may depend on the answer to that question.