- Dec. 28, 2019
ATLANTA — Top-ranked Louisiana State arrived with a hunch: 45 points would be enough to beat Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday.
It took less than 30 minutes for L.S.U. to pass that magic number as the Tigers pummeled the No. 4 Sooners, 63-28, to earn a berth in next month’s national championship game against Clemson, which edged Ohio State in the other semifinal later on Saturday night.
“We came out here to put up points, and we put up more than we expected,” Ja’Marr Chase, a sophomore wide receiver, said on the field after the game.
That the Peach Bowl was the scene of an offensive outburst was of little surprise. The matchup — with the nation’s best offenses, the Heisman-worthy quarterbacks who could roll and run from a swarm of trouble, the tailbacks who could cut past defensive linemen, the receivers who treated the turf as more of a launchpad than a football field — promised plenty of points.
But the one-sided offensive shellacking that L.S.U. unleashed on Oklahoma was without precedent in the playoff system, now in its sixth season. Led by Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who threw seven touchdowns in the first half, the Tigers scored the most points of any team in a playoff game since the system’s start, and they nearly matched the record for margin of victory.
Powered by Burrow’s arm and poise, L.S.U. had 21 points at the end of the first quarter, more than Oklahoma allowed in six entire games this season. By halftime, the Tigers had added 28 more, its players had set records and Oklahoma fans had started evacuating Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
They had bought tickets for a game they hoped would inch a formidable and proud program toward the end of a title drought that now stretches close to two decades. What they saw, L.S.U. players and coaches said, was a defense the Tigers found surprisingly predictable and easily exploitable.
“They’ve been doing exactly what we watched on film,” said Justin Jefferson, a wide receiver. “A lot of teams switch it up on game day, but they stayed the same.”
The Tigers’ next game day may well feel like a home matchup: The Jan. 13 showdown for the national title will be played in New Orleans, about 80 miles from the L.S.U. campus, against Clemson, the reigning national champion. Clemson won its semifinal game against Ohio State with a late drive from quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who took his team 94 yards in four plays for a touchdown to beat the Buckeyes, 29-23.
L.S.U. has not won a national championship since the 2007 season, and it has not played for one since the end of its 2011 campaign.
This season, though, has been a startling ascension for L.S.U., a program long known for grinding defenses, prolifically quirky coaches and some of the best tailgate spreads in college football. Picked before the season to finish second in the West Division of the Southeastern Conference, L.S.U. beat one formidable team after another: Texas, Florida, Auburn and then, in November, Alabama — the juggernaut that had stymied the Tigers for eight years. In the SEC title game, at the same Atlanta stadium where the semifinal played out on Saturday, L.S.U. dismantled Georgia, which was ranked No. 4 at the time.
L.S.U.’s resurgence came with a spread offense, installed after a series of tortured seasons that, one year after the next, left the Tigers to face the perils of being a storied program with a stuck-in-the-past passing game.
Last season, the L.S.U. offense finished 38th in the country and averaged about 402 yards per game. When it entered the Peach Bowl, the offense from Baton Rouge was the nation’s best, with 554 yards per game — 387 through the air. Its closest offensive rival ahead of Saturday’s game: Oklahoma, a hub for scoring and Heisman contenders (and two winners) in recent years.
Yet the Sooners struggled from their opening possession: K’Lavon Chaisson, a towering outside linebacker from Houston, sacked Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts just after the game’s first snap. Two rushes toggled the ball a yard in each direction. Then Oklahoma shanked its punt.
Not even a minute later, L.S.U. scored for the first time, as Burrow faked a handoff and passed to Jefferson. An Oklahoma defender wrapped his arms around Jefferson’s legs, only to find Jefferson plopping into the end zone anyway for the first of his four touchdowns.
Oklahoma held the Tigers to three plays and a punt during the L.S.U. offense’s next visit to the field. A Sooner bounce-back still seemed plenty possible, especially behind Hurts, a quarterback with deep experience in college football’s postseason and a demeanor that has long awed his opponents. He had also finished second in this year’s Heisman balloting.
But then came seven consecutive L.S.U. drives that ended with touchdowns, including a 3-yard rushing score by Burrow. Only two of those drives took longer than three minutes, quick strikes that represented a staggering blend of speed and arm strength before giving way to a workmanlike drubbing: methodical, mostly monotonous and essentially merciless — a rarity in a matchup of top-five teams.
“They certainly made plays, but we gave them a lot of plays with our mistakes.” said Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma’s coach, after the Sooners lost their fourth playoff semifinal game since 2015.
The L.S.U. offense’s rushers, including Burrow, ran for 160 yards. Burrow completed 29 of his 39 passes to gain almost 500 yards. The double-digit gains continued even once Burrow exited the game after a fumble early in the fourth quarter. With Myles Brennan at quarterback for L.S.U., Chris Curry ran for 20 yards.
At the game’s eventual end, the outcome long decided, the scoreboard showed an L.S.U. team that had ripped Oklahoma’s defense apart as no squad had since Nebraska’s bracingly powerful teams tormented the Sooners in the 1990s. The Tigers recorded 692 yards of offense on Saturday, averaging more than nine yards per play.
“I’m 53 years old, and I’ve seen L.S.U. score more points, but it was always against a very inferior opponent in Tiger Stadium,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, who has already canceled his inaugural ball, which had been expected on Jan. 13, to make way for the title game.
Oklahoma notched 322 yards, its lowest total this year, and, for the first time since 2016, did not put together even 100 rushing yards. But while L.S.U. believed that the Oklahoma defense mirrored its past games, the Sooners’ offense tried some surprises that, ultimately, motivated the Tigers.
“I thought early in the game there were a lot of trick plays,” said Dave Aranda, the defensive coordinator for L.S.U. “When those things didn’t hit, that gave us some downs that we executed on. It gave us some juice, I thought.”
The game was played several hours after the daughter-in-law of Steve Ensminger, L.S.U.’s offensive coordinator, died in a plane crash as she traveled to the game.
Ensminger, a former L.S.U. quarterback who was an assistant coach when the Tigers last appeared in a national title game, paced the field, mostly in silence, as his team warmed up. He retreated to his usual spot — a box overlooking the field — for the game and dialed up play after play.
Ed Orgeron, the L.S.U. head coach who had been the one to tell his coordinator about the plane crash, said Ensminger had earned the game ball.
“I told him what happened,” Orgeron recalled, “and here’s what he said: ‘Coach, We’re going to get through this.’”