Updated: May 23
LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
(originally published 1/10/20)
Above all the pre-game bluster of profane hyperbole spewing from the gallery of faceless, nihilist media coneheads or the sickening agony of hearing Rece Davis repeat "Joe Burrow" and "College Football history" as if he's Nostradamus, and the cowering acknowledgement of Rudy Giuliani's public crucifixion in the nude during halftime at midfield, above all this mind-shriveling madness...I feel this game comes down to the finest of margins deciding the highest of stakes and the best players pulling off the biggest plays.
The two most well known and accomplished players who'll take the field Monday night will undoubtedly be quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence...they're also the most important, of course...and one of these young men will win this game with a decisive performance for their team.
Quarterback play decided Clemson's fate over the Buckeyes and it's seemed to decide their fate in all 4 of their title game appearances, Swinney and Venables' kids persevering in a twilight netherworld where warriors never fear to tread and the clock's at 0:00 with the ball in the air.
But Clemson haven't played a quarterback like Joe Burrow...his dominance throughout the toughest schedule of all time prevented LSU from ever having to sweat in a 4th quarter...and he's surrounded by a team of endless stars, studs and prodigies operating at a level where warriors are eaten by supernatural voodoo no man knoweth or can cageth.
And as frightening as Trevor Lawrence's buttchin may be, we're glad we won't be seeing Deshaun Watson in orange on Monday night.
The 2020 National Championship Game will be full of future NFL stars making filthy plays, it'll be one blood-encrusted, obscenity-drenched scene from Raging Bull after another, punch after punch hurled until someone falls over, beaten, fallen, and drunk on their own nationally-televised-Shakespearean death trip....surrendering in their own anguish and piss-soaked nightmare...
This game can't be analyzed or dissected...picked apart or predicted...like any good bowl of gumbo, it's simply too hot and heavy and just needs to be eaten....so we'll go ahead and dig in:
In Pt.I we dissected the matchups and the makeup of LSU's underrated defense, posting a litany of proof against the phony statistics many pundits are using to promote the negative narrative towards LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and his squad.
We also covered the balanced, dangerous, and multi-dimensional rushing attack of Clemson (featuring Travis Etienne & Lyn-J Dixon in the backfield) as well as the underrated length and skills of overlooked receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins.
But now we get down to brass tacks and talk about the battle everyone really wants to see: gunslinging Joe Burrow in shotgun, his boys out wide and Edwards-Helaire in behind, Ensminger and Brady up in the booth, and that ohhhh so important o-line dueling against Clemson's mesmeric Isaiah Simmons, their standout duo of corners Derion Kendrick and A.J Terrell, and the raging pulse behind it all, defensive coordinator Brent Venables commanding his eighth title game as a coordinator.
Many have wondered aloud, can Clemson even stop LSU?
I'm not so sure.
This isn't Alabama with an injured Tua or some basic vanilla running attack, this is an offense averaging 7.9 yards per play, racking up just under 600 yards per game...this is a legendary group that's already ravaged every defense in sight to the tune of 87 touchdowns...the noose-like task of trying to shut down Joe Burrow will be the most trying of Brent Venables' storied career...and the man wouldn't want it any other way.
It was back in the 2000 BCS National Championship game when Venables made his name, cutting his teeth as an unknown co-defensive coordinator for Bob Stoopes' Oklahoma (ya know...back when they kinda had a defense).
The 2000 Sooners faced a supposedly un-winnable godforsaken task against Bobby Bowden's defending champion and perennial powerhouse Florida State. Instead of lying down, the Broyles Award-winning DC blitzed Florida State's heralded offensive line into pillars of salt, smashing Bowden's highly-favored Seminoles with stunts and pressures they didn't see coming, shutting out the Warrick-Weinke offense en route to a 13-2 bloodbath win.
Hell, they could've played until Chris Weinke was in diapers and they'd still be shutting Florida State out. The victory stunned the college football world, many Floridians accusing Venables and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops of occultist practices and after-midnight animal sacrifice.
Regardless of the accusations of witchcraft or the state of Oklahoma's ties to the meth trade, this was the moment in which Brent Venables learned how to maximize his talents for the biggest occasions and against the best opponents, becoming the guy to call if you wanted an improved, sadistic defense.
Venables stayed at Oklahoma for nearly 12 years, appearing in three more losing national championship efforts with mixed to horrible results in the postseason: the 55 points his and Mike Stoops' defense allowed USC in 2005, the overtime shootout defeat on a (recklessly awesome) two point conversion from Chris Peterson's Boise State in 2007, and a championship game loss against these very LSU Tigers in the Louisiana Superdome in 2004
But it was another defensive humiliation halfway across the country that brought him South Carolina's way in January 2012:
After Kevin Steele's porous defense submitted unto Geno Smith's West Virginia to the tune of 70 points in Clemson's first Orange Bowl since 1982, Dabo Swinney testified before the fans, athletic director, and the media vowing to never let such a performance occur again while he was head coach.
Immediately following the ruthless thunderfucking in the Orange Bowl, Dabo recruited Brent Venables heavily and quickly got his man. Ever since Dabo convinced the Sooners DC of his vision, overwhelming success and an unbelievable program trajectory followed at every turn.
Venables has had an amazing run as Chief Spoiler for Clemson, ruining two years of Nick Saban's life; However, the impending showdown vs this LSU team is a different proposition to any of the challenges Venables has ever faced: Joe Burrow isn't Chris Weinke and he's not Jalen Hurts or a hobbled Tua Tagovaiola...he's better than all three combined.
After watching every minute of LSU's 2019 season as it went down, hot blue & righteous, then again and again just for fun (followed by extra viewings just to bask in the vibe) I am gobsmacked when I look at all the defensive minds Burrow, Ensminger and Brady have outfoxed so far:
What makes Brent Venables so confident his guys can shut Joe Burrow down?? How can his secondary limit those receivers and their big plays, or go about containing Edwards-Helaire for an entire 60 minutes???
That isn't happening...
This isn't a knock on Clemson's defense, I'm sure some of those powderpuff ACC schools have some legitimate athletes, but the fear this LSU juggernaut immediately strikes in opponents would've swept the entire ACC aside like a Kate Moss coke-bugger.
So let's go through it...let's finish what we started:
With such an impotent schedule in the ACC, we've watched Clemson belittle Wake Forest and barely escape UNC and none of those games are really meaningful when analyzing this team...although Dabo's gang earned their spot in the title game after finally being tested in that breathtaking, bludgeoning semifinal in which we witnessed just how good they can be.
Brent Venables' defense ranks #1 overall, surrendering a meager 11.5 points per game, creating 19 interceptions, forcing 8 fumbles (with a 100% recovery rate), good for a 3rd place 2.1 turnovers per 60 minutes; and at 4.2 yards per play allowed, Clemson's D proved they can stop world class finesse in space, executing a number of shoestring tackles on J.K Dobbins in the Fiesta Bowl.
As we watched the Fiesta Bowl again, it was the first Buckeyes drive of the game which interested us the most.
At first, Justin Fields and Ohio State's receiving corps were pulling off towering catches over corners Kendrick and Terrell, yet once they were near the goal-line, Venables' #1 ranked red zone defense stifled Fields, Dobbins and co to an important field goal that killed their momentum and rhythm.
The rest of that surreal face-off vs Ohio State depicted a Clemson team more embattled than Harvey Weinstein: Dobbins nearly on the brink of gassing linebacker James Skalski and Chad Smith up and down the field, all while Trevor Lawrence and Elliott/Scott's offense were incapable of sustaining meaningful drives...I don't think we realize the facts here:
Clemson were right on the edge of getting blown out.
Despite their blistering first 3 quarters, Ohio State only had 16 points to show for their strident dominance, even as they controlled the clock with 7 more minutes of the ball. Still, Ohio State went 7/18 on 3rd down and threw 2 key interceptions that directly cost them the game. Clemson's heavy-tackling linebacker Chad Smith, Isaiah Simmons' massive track-meet interception, and Baylon Spencer's 2 sacks kept the Buckeyes at bay, and dramatically turned the 2019 Fiesta Bowl on its head.
For Venables and Dabo Swinney, the semi-final couldn't have prepared their team any better for the sections of suffering they'll undoubtedly face vs LSU, yet they'll feel confident in their players' mental toughness.
They won't have it all their way, in fact, they'll have to hold on for dear life against this LSU offense...but if they can minimize Burrow's scathing, long-yardage plays and prevent his unstoppable, aggressive / pedal to the metal momentum from taking flight, they could hang with the Tigers.
STOPPING THE BUNCH-FORMATION
CHOICE ROUTES OF CHASE/JEFFERSON
JAMMING / DISRUPTING ROUTES
When LSU line up in their much-utilized shotgun-bunch formation, just like you see here to your right, Burrow will have multiple options and different routes based on the defense's reactions, utilizing the inside/outside choice routes from Chase and Jefferson. In this nuclear formation, the Tigers are always met face to face by the defense, linebackers and safeties tip-toeing up to the line of scrimmage, a fully-loaded box, and man on man coverage.
Against LSU, this is kamikazi warfare...
One or two of those talented receivers or running backs will get free or Burrow will extend the play, someone will make someone miss and haul in a big gain.
Venables shouldn't "get in tight" in a man on man coverage against this formation, containing this attack is all about width and staying home in your gaps inside:
Place your corners and safeties wider of the receivers in tight, watching and waiting to contain and react on those quick choice-route passes, all while covering and following the Tigers' weapons out wide in a man-zone hybrid (jamming and contesting at the line, following until the player leaves your zone, stay aware for what's behind, next guy takes on the rest of the route)...A.J Terrell, Derion Kendrick, Tanner Muse, etc won't be skilled enough to compete against LSU's option-route passing offense and those high IQ, physically imposing, aggressive receivers by themselves; doubling up and zoning LSU while disguising blitzes on the edge is the only way to hamper this passing attack.
Brent Venables' 5-star recruits will never stop LSU in a million years without getting creative to contain these big plays, and there's nothing I've ever seen more indicative of an LSU touchdown than when Ensminger, Brady & Burrow have baited opposition defenses into loading the box and going mano e mano vs Joe Burrow's excellent decision-making, his telepathy and craftsmanship with those receivers, and that offensive line's brilliantly bullish protection in these shotgun-bunch formations.
When facing the cavalcade of filth LSU sends out wide at receiver, the only way to overcome such size, speed and skill??
Hit em instantly, the second the ball is snapped.
Rarely have we seen any opponent attempt to jam or even disrupt the LSU receivers' routes, an absolutely hilarious notion which always leads to the opposition DBs becoming spectators, watching in awe thirty yards in the dust as one of the Bayou Bengals' many future NFL talents takes it to the house. Sometimes we've seen DBs challenge them, yet the LSU receivers' first step is so untouchable it's a case of "it don't matter what you're choosin' no matter what you're losin'."
However, Clemson must be better than that...if only for our own entertainment, they must use their physicality to psychologically throw LSU's playmakers off. This is why both corners, Terrell and Kendrick, need last second double teams Burrow won't be ready for. Though the gaps they'd vacate would also be exploited by Joe.
There's too much movement on the Ensminger/Brady/Burrow offense to contend with here, so getting wider of the play and slightly deeper wouldn't allow LSU much room to breathe, it would keep LSU's Harlem-Globetrotters offense in front of Simmons and Wallace, and force Ensminger and Brady to run a more ho-hum offense, thus boring these superstars into a lull....and that's when you blitz and attack Joe Burrow.
FULLER, EASY ON THE PEPSI
I am a born and bred LSU Tigers fan...so I hate to say this, but I fear the only way Clemson can win this game is by knocking Joe Burrow out of the contest, ruining the game for planet earth and becoming public enemy #1 in the process, because as we found out against Central Florida last year, roughing Joe up so hard he "gets off his game" won't happen...you can't merely rough him up...you must take him out.
While this may sound savage and unnecessarily brutal, I am only stating the facts: Clemson's speed and 5-star recruits can only buy them so much time against a mind and body like Joe Burrow delivering the football to this collection of talent.
Look for Brady and Ensminger to move their receivers and skill position killers all over the line of scrimmage, forcing Clemson to ignore their inner-urge to quarterback-hunt and follow Moss, Justin Jefferson or even Edwards-Helaire out of the back field, allowing the offensive line and Joe Burrow even more time, thus letting the option routes fully develop against an unprepared, overwhelmed defense.
Venables must get creative in how he disguises his blitzes, and try to isolate hits on the quarterback at all costs...it's Clemson's only way forward in this contest, and it's also the mission for Aranda's defense as well. As if they're some backcountry Bond villains, those Clemson meetings on defense are all about hitting Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and our play-makers.
As former Texas Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy can testify, winning national championships isn't always for the feint of heart.
Clemson are going to need help from the football gods to win this game, but how well they play against the #1 red zone offense will go a long way in deciding whether they repeat.
When their backs were against the wall in the Fiesta Bowl vs Ohio State, Clemson's defensive linemen Xavier Kelly and Tyler Davis were able to maintain penetration, and together, Venables' D forced a trilogy of field goals after surviving 12 plays from their own goal-line, every stand following a methodical, gashing drive by Fields and the Buckeyes:
They're the #1 red zone defense for a reason.
Still, Clemson's defense need a lot of help from LSU penalties, injuries, individual errors, refereeing decisions or by creating turnovers, but we know they can't bank on the zebras again: Coach O's guys are averaging a modest 6 penalties a game, around the same number of yards and flags as the South Carolina Orangemen (can't call em Tigers).
So, Venables must create unpredictable scenarios Burrow won't have the time to dissect, he has to use Isaiah Simmons as a Burrow-spy on every single play of the game and from as many different angles if he wants to win this national championship...they can't allow Ensminger and Brady's motion-heavy, pro-style offense to easily punish them through unfavorable match-ups.
And there are a more than a few...
MATCHUPS (IN THE SLOT)
At this stage, Joe Burrow will have made many mental notes about Clemson safety Tanner Muse's lack of coverage abilities, though without failing to acknowledge Muse's team-leading 4 interceptions from inferior quarterbacks. The safety does possess 5-star speed to make up ground, but we know Joe is doing his homework right now and licking his chops while evaluating Muse's 1-star technique once the ball's in the air.
Tanner Muse hasn't merely been beaten by UNC receivers in 2019, he was also burned on the biggest stage possible: getting shredded on a 70 yard bomb by Alabama's Jerry Jeudy in last year's national title game, though it was of little consequence.
To force Venables away from his favorite setup (utilizing 4 safety / linebacker hybrids) LSU must line up with men already in the slot, and add to the confusion of Venables' adjustments by motioning Jefferson, Chase, Marshall or Thaddeus Moss in and out of the slot until we scatter the Clemson safeties, creating larger gaps in the secondary for our receivers and Burrow's arm to exploit.
Another target for Burrow could be corner Derion Kendrick or A.J Terrell.
While maintaining consistent play throughout the season against lower-level competition (inc. a pick six in a blowout over Florida St), Kendrick was beaten heavily against the Buckeyes, especially when receiving adjustments from the sideline late; although Kendrick should've had a pick six on one play vs Ohio State, he got away with a blatant pass interference in the same movement.
Is Kendrick someone who'll ball out against Chase, Jefferson, Marshall and Moss?
Or will he get bossed out?
Clemson's secondary may contain speed, talent and ability in coverage, but they are susceptible against NFL talent: just look at the way their best corner, A.J Terrell, couldn't contest the ball in man on man coverage vs Chris Olave, Fields and his receiving corps beating Terrell throughout the Buckeyes' breathtaking first half.
Though just like everything with this Clemson team, there may be imperfections, but there's also a lotta heart:
In a key 3rd and goal opportunity vs Ohio State, A.J Terrell, who we just finished cannabalizing, recovered from his earlier mishaps to make a diving deflection, on an island with Olave in the corner of the end zone...it was yet another play which booked Dabo Swinney's kids a ticket to New Orleans.
If Joe Burrow ignores these potential mismatches, especially concerning Tanner Muse, LSU will have to throw into a more crowded secondary, which would slow down the rhythm of the passing game.
On the other hand, if Clemson's secondary can't compete in man on man coverage, they won't win this game.
STOP THE LATE SIDELINE ADJUSTMENTS
Venables loves to have his defense adjusting to the formation in front of them and looking to the sidelines later than most collegiate Division I defenses.
This, much like the episode involving the distraction of LSU's Stingley Jr. in the Alabama game, has cost Clemson on a few big plays, notably Ohio State's hurry-up QB sneak to earn a huge 1st down and a play where the just-mentioned Kendrick was burned by Buckeyes' receiver Chris Olave following a glance to the sidelines for last seconds notes from Venables and his assistant Lemanski Hall.
When squaring off, duking it out, burning the midnight oil, shooting the duce, or bringing the shade against a badass like Joe Burrow, you absolutely cannot be distracting your own players milliseconds before the ball is snapped.
If Venables and Hall think they can get away with those kind of shenanigans, Joe Burrow will ram his foot on the gas pedal so hard he throws the football through Venables' own mouth, disgracing Dabo Swinney's huckabee brigade to their second national title defeat in 4 years.
DOES IT MATTER?
The consistency of Clemson's coaching staff is unparalleled in modern football, thanks to Dabo Swinney building a decade-old culture where outstanding assistants (let alone Broyles Award winners) won't leave for promising championship-winning positions and head coaching roles.
Dabo Swinney may be cast as a backyard hootenanny doolittle, but the man is a shrewd, cunning dude to be able to convince and maintain that staff: he understands how much it weakens a program when you lose a John Chavis, a Brent Venables or a Kirby Smart.
Instead, Clemson's staff has only lost one assistant since their first title showdown in 2015 vs Alabama:
Jeff Scott, Tony Elliott (Broyles Award winner) and Brent Venables (Broyles Award winner) all stayed, while Marion Hobby was the sole coordinator to leave the staff during the last 4 years.
Over the last 4 years as Clemson got high on the fumes of their own meteoric rise, LSU suffered from this shuffle of coordinators, position coaches and the loss of undergrads to the NFL. Beginning in 2018, the right balance / continuity was finally found, building to the orgasmic 2019 Dream Team assembled around, because of and for Coach O that we see today.
Clemson may have experience in games of this magnitude, but so do the Tigers: The 46-41 victory in Tuscaloosa is as close to a national title-deciding playoff that you're likely to find, regular or postseason...then again so was LSU's battle vs Auburn's #1 ranked defense (at the time), or #4 Georgia's #1 ranked defense (at the time) in the SEC title game...what's the big deal about gashing one more #1 ranked defense? PREDICTIONS, DAMNIT
This will be the most entertaining bloodbath in the history of the national championship game, with both teams beating each other into a marred and scarred pulp. The receivers won't be as much of a factor as we thought, thanks to a lot of confusing pressures and coverages tricking both Lawrence and Burrow into inaccurate throws. Which is where Edwards-Helaire and Travis Etienne arrive to take over the game: Both running backs will put on an illustrious show, with EH gaining nearly 200 yards in total offense and Etienne not far behind at 125...but it's Edwards-Helaire's constant outlet presence out of the backfield that wins LSU this game. Not only will Edwards-Helaire catch 2 first half touchdown passes from Burrow in the red zone, he'll gash Clemson's defense on 3rd down as LSU operates with more patience in segments to control the tempo in every which way.
The game will be an unbelievable 24-17 at halftime, but the LSU machine will really get going in the second half. Thanks to a batted pass at the line from Michael Divinity Jr, Kristian Fulton grabs an interception and hands Burrow a short field to finally separate from Clemson's clutches. After a bomb to Thaddeus Moss down the sidelines to make it 34-24, the heat gets ratcheted up and the game becomes an extremely chippy, vicious affair in the 3rd quarter...with a big time injury happening to Etienne. Trevor Lawrence will lead Clemson to big-time touchdowns, one with his feet and a pass to Higgins, just as LSU's pace quickens on offense to a blazing speed. The two teams trade scores until it's 41-38 and a key Clemson stop provides Elliott/Scott's offense with the ball and only 2 1/2 minutes left for a chance at the national championship. This is when K'Lavon Chaisson rips through the Clemson offensive line and bashes Lawrence's undefeated collegiate career from out of his own hands, the ball bouncing hopelessly away from the ravaged quarterback until Divinity Jr recovers possession.
In true LSU fashion that encapsulates the style and mythic verve this team represents and exudes, Burrow stands and discusses options on the headset in an iconic moment. He knows sitting on the clock won't win it...he recognizes a field goal won't do it either...so just like the Texas game, LSU put the pedal to the metal and aggressively rampage down the field to bury the game. In the final minute, a Justin Jefferson touchdown catch seals the Tigers victory 48-38as purple and gold confetti falls and we all begin a long party that we'll never forget...if only we'll be able to remember it all.
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
COPYRIGHT 2020 UNINTERRUPTED WRITINGS INC LLC
Dedicated to those who've believed in me, I thank you for everything, never taken for granted: Chelsea my love, my parents, my brothers, my sister, Jamie, A.D, Tony, Harold, LSUDan, Kyle Albright, AG, Nurse Kort, Kajun Kannabis, Irish Cajun, Jude Viator, Fred From Plano, the great Jacques Doucet, Mark Rogers, T-Bob Hebert, Late Kick Josh Pate and more for their guidance. thank you to so many of you.
Thank you for giving this scribe a chance!