NEW ORLEANS — The final play of Trevor Lawrence's sophomore season was a fumble.
The Clemson quarterback was hit on a scramble, the ball jarred loose and recovered by LSU. Lawrence stayed crouched on the field for a few seconds after the play, distraught at the result of that play and the air of finality that came with it. Down 17 points with less that four minutes to play, this was the end.
There would be no miracle comeback. The 29-game winning streak, spanning his entire Clemson tenure, was over. For the first time since high school, Lawrence had to reacquaint himself with defeat.
When he got to the sideline, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney grabbed his young star’s head and tried to console him.
“Keep his head up,” Swinney said of his message. “Told him I loved him. … He’s not going to lose many, I’m going to tell you that right now. He’s special. He had a tough night tonight, no doubt. But I wouldn’t trade him for nobody.”
After that it was quarterback coach Brandon Streeter’s turn to attempt to quell the rising emotions inside Lawrence. He wrapped his left arm around No. 16’s waist and looked him in the eyes.
“He was very upset,” Streeter said. “… We wouldn’t have been here without him. One thing about Trevor, he always responds.”
And so the 2020 college football season will be, in no small part, defined by Trevor Lawrence’s response to this 42-25 defeat in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
If he and Clemson bounce back as expected, they will be back in this game again a year from now—and quite likely much happier about the final result than they were Monday night in the Louisiana Superdome. This program is loaded for the 2020 season.
Last time Clemson suffered a three-score loss in the Superdome in a playoff game against a Southeastern Conference opponent, it roared back the following season to go 15-0 and win it all. That was in 2017, when Alabama beat the Tigers 24-6. Then Lawrence arrived on campus and Clemson didn’t lose again until Monday night.
Don’t be shocked if history repeats itself.
“We’re going to have a really, really good football team next year,” Swinney said.
Lawrence is the biggest reason why, coming back for a third and what should be final season of college football before the NFL gets its hands on him. But he’s hardly the only reason. The roster is stacked, the coaching staff is excellent, the freshman class coming in is the best in the nation and the path to the playoff through the Atlantic Coast Conference should be only slightly more challenging next year than it was this year.
So, yes, this figures to be a temporary setback for Lawrence and Clemson. But that doesn’t make it an easy setback to endure.
Emerging from the locker room, still in his full uniform and carrying a towel in his right hand, Lawrence made the walk to the postgame press conference behind Swinney. A woman wearing Clemson colors came up to pat him on the back. A few LSU fans who unexpectedly encountered him in the back hallway whipped out phones to take pictures.
When Lawrence sat down, he listened to a lengthy opening statement from his coach and at one point wiped his face with the towel. When it was his turn to answer questions, the first sound that came out his mouth was a deep sigh of sadness.
“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “It sucks.”
What undoubtedly stung the deepest was the fact that Lawrence did not play well. In a showdown with Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, he was dramatically outplayed. Clemson’s best chance of winning was a shootout in which the potential 2021 No. 1 draft pick matched throws with the likely 2020 No. 1 draft pick, and that didn’t come close to happening.
Burrow’s stat line for the night: 31 of 49 for 463 yards with five touchdowns. Pass efficiency rating: 174.27. (Which, by Burrow’s standards, was somewhat pedestrian. It was his lowest rating since an Oct. 26 game against Auburn. It also came against a Clemson team that is No. 1 in the nation in pass defense.)
Lawrence’s stat line for the night: 18 of 37 for 234 yards and no touchdowns. Pass efficiency rating: 101.77. It was the lowest rating of his college career.
“End of the day, I didn’t play well enough for us to win,” Lawrence said. “Too many missed plays by me, missed a lot of receivers, and it just wasn’t my night.
“I’ve got to be more accurate. I wasn’t accurate tonight. I didn’t give my guys a chance.”
By all accounts, Clemson’s practices in the 16 days between the Fiesta Bowl victory over Ohio State and this game were excellent. Everyone believed the plan would work, and it did for much of the first half as Clemson got out to a 17-7 lead. But then LSU hit its prodigious stride offensively, while Lawrence & Co. sputtered, failing to keep pace.
“We felt really super-confident in the gameplan,” Streeter said. “It just ended up being a lack of execution.”
And that rested largely on the shoulders of Lawrence, who had been so good in so many victories.
He sailed a surprising number of passes over his receivers’ heads, especially to the outer thirds of the field. Blessed with a cannon of an arm, he didn’t have his customary control over where the ball was going when it left his hand.
LSU’s coverage was good and there was consistent pressure on Lawrence, but there still were several windows for throws that he simply didn’t make. It was a startling reminder that, as talented as he is, he’s also 20 years old. Burrow, age 23, presented an in-game tutorial on the difference three years can make in the development of a young quarterback.
“He had a tough night tonight, no doubt,” Swinney said. “But hey, that’s ball.”
That’s ball, and there are lessons learned from bitter defeat. For Clemson, which has lost so little—and for Lawrence, who had not lost at all as a collegian—this is a bonfire of fuel for next year.
“It’ll put a little carrot out in front of his nose,” Streeter said. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get it next time.’“