NEW ORLEANS (WIS) - It’s been 16 long days since both LSU and Clemson both took the field.
On Monday night, the wait to play comes to an end as the Tigers battle it out for college football’s ultimate prize.
Clemson comes into Monday’s game facing their greatest offensive challenge yet in LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. The Heisman Trophy winner has completed 77% of his passes and thrown for 5,208 yards. In his last game, Burrow, a first-team All-SEC selection, threw an NCAA record seven touchdowns in the first half against Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl. All year long, opponents have struggled to find a way to stop the 6-foot-4 quarterback. Now, Clemson’s defense will get their shot.
“Just a dynamic, terrific player,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “ [He] creates a lot of matchup issues for you. He’s excellent in the passing game. Plays with great toughness in the running game. Gives them great balance in everything they’re doing.”
Burrow does add an extra dimension with his legs, but LSU also has a dynamic running back in Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The junior running back out of Baton Rouge was named to the All-SEC first team after rushing for 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns. Like Burrow, Edwards-Helaire can also be dangerous in other ways as well. Edwards-Helaire has 50 catches for 399 yards.
“Hard-nosed runner, catches the ball. Kind of like a total package for a running back,” said Clemson defensive back Tanner Muse of the LSU running back. “Not a lot of running backs in college football are able to get out and catch the ball. That's just another fat parcel on his toolbox. But you just gotta do your best to slow him down. I mean, they've got so many weapons, you just gotta go out there and match them up and cover them up and do your best.”
Among those other weapons on offense are wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Combined, the duo has accounted for 177 catches for 2,993 yards and 36 touchdowns. All in all, the LSU offense is potent enough to pick your poison. They lead the country with an average of 48.9 points scored per game.
“They're a really, really explosive offense that can beat you in any kind of way,” said Clemson senior linebacker Isaiah Simmons. “The main thing I think about when I watched that game is just you have to play your A-game when you play them. Just a little mistake, small mistake maybe wouldn't be a factor in a different game, like a regular-season game, it can be the game-winning play in this game. You never know.”
But Clemson’s offense is no pushover either. The defending champions are fourth in the nation in scoring offense with 45.3 points per game. Led by Trevor Lawrence, Dabo Swinney’s squad can light up a scoreboard quickly. If LSU hopes to have success, stopping Lawrence will be one of the keys.
“He's a young perfectionist. He's America's sweetheart,” LSU sophomore linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said of Lawrence. “He's a great quarterback, man, from his freshman year he was playing great, sophomore year he was playing great. And to play a National Championship, I think both these years, that's something special.
“We know another quarterback that did that. But like I said, that's special. Like I said, he's young, so every day and every week he's learning something new and he's only going to get better. So that's the great thing about him. It's going to be a great thing to go against him. It's going to be the challenge that we're up to.”
Lawrence is joined in the backfield by Travis Etienne, the reigning ACC Player of the Year. Etienne returns home to compete for a national championship. Etienne has rushed for 1,536 yards and 18 touchdowns. LSU is well aware of what Etienne is capable of and they hope to find ways to bottle him up.
“He's been amazing for our program. He's got about every record in the book and those who follow Clemson know he's done it on very limited touches,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “I mean, there's been lots of games where he's had eight, nine, 10 touches because of the nature of the game and yet he's got 100-something yards. He's got all the records in the ACC, touchdowns and all that. So he's just a special young person, beautiful family, from right here in Jennings, and just a blue-collar hard worker, humble superstar, and doesn't even know it. He just goes about his business.”
Like LSU, Clemson also has a dynamic duo at the receiver position in Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. The pair have caught 117 passes for 1,904 yards and 21 touchdowns. Their ability to get past LSU’s secondary could be the key for Clemson’s offense on Monday.
“I don't think they have one specific biggest threat,” Chaisson said. “Like I said, all receivers great, running back is great, quarterback is great. It's something we've got to take – when your quarterback is a dual-threat that makes it a little more difficult when he has the ability to run the ball. So we just have to pay close attention to that when we're playing.”
Defensively, Clemson is as tough as they come. Venables’ defense surrenders around 11 points per game.
“I do believe it's a combination of their great athletes that they have, but he always has them in position to make plays,” LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said of Venables and the Clemson defense. “The guy is a phenomenal game day caller, especially his blitzes. He knows how to blitz protections, and he can just send one linebacker, but it's at the right place. The way he uses No. 11, he's going to be all over the field. He puts his athletes in premier spots to make plays, and the guys play with great technique. They're hardly out of position.”
Clemson is led defensively by Simmons, who has 14 sacks, seven tackles for loss, and three interceptions. Without question, LSU will be watching the Clemson star.
“I think what he does best is when they just let him roam the field in the middle and read my eyes, just get all the different throws through the middle of the field,” Burrow said. “I think he's really, really good at that. He's really fast, super explosive, good tackler. He's super tough to defend when he's running that middle of the field.”
LSU’s defense isn’t one that can be underestimated either. They’re among the top 30 defenses in the country when it comes to points and yards allowed. Led by Chaisson and defensive back Grant Delpit, Ed Orgeron’s defense offers little margin for error.
“t's one of the best. Very, very good; very, very talented; very, very big; very deep in the defensive line,” said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “That linebackers, the two linebackers probably run as good as I've seen. I think probably the only one that I compare them to is they run around like Reuben Foster did. They're violent.”
Clemson takes on LSU on Monday at 8 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the College Football Playoff National Championship.
The game can be seen on ESPN.