Published 3: 01 AM EST Jan 14, 2020
NEW ORLEANS — To shower, change and get dressed in the loser’s locker room was a new feeling for a swath of Clemson’s roster, from the true freshman through sophomores who had won every game, including a national championship, since joining a program with designs on cementing a dynasty equal to any in the sport’s history.
Confidence was high in the weeks between the Fiesta Bowl and Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game, even if the opponent, top-ranked LSU, represented the sort of challenge Clemson hadn’t faced in completing another unbeaten regular season.
“We really felt super confident,” said quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter.
LSU’s 42-25 win will usher in a different sort of offseason. Clemson’s dynasty was stopped in its tracks by an offense — and specifically a quarterback, Joe Burrow — that did something no opponent had done during the Tigers’ active five-year run: dominate the tone, tempo and tenor of a game with winner-take-all stakes.
So for the first time since the program’s last loss, a similarly frustrating loss to Alabama just over two years ago on this same field, Clemson was forced to answer the question: What went wrong?
“I really liked our plan going in, and man, the guys practiced so well for two weeks,” said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, now the head coach at South Florida. “You just hope as a coach that your practice carries over to the field. And for whatever reason, we were just off. It wasn’t just one person, it was multiple guys all over the place.”
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The answer is simple if unsatisfying, and not becoming of a program one game away from penciling itself into college football history. On this night, Clemson ran up against a better team — a once-in-a-generation powerhouse of perfection, a team synced up with the quarterback, scheme, talent, coaching and motivation to unseat the Tigers from atop the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“LSU was just the better team tonight,” said senior center Sean Pollard. “Give all props to them.”
Even still, Clemson players and coaches pointed to a series of mistakes, errors and missed opportunities rather than any schematic failures, let alone a gap in talent or athleticism that allowed LSU gain 628 yards of offense and storm into control after a sluggish first quarter.
The Tigers’ biggest failure can be seen on third down, with just one conversion in 11 tries after entering Monday night ranked 17th nationally in third-down efficiency. The issue stems from earlier downs: Clemson was unproductive in setting up easier conversions, allowing LSU to capitalize on its speed on clear passing downs.
There was a moment early when the Tigers seemed to have LSU on its heels, the first time the Tigers had faced any true strain since a seismic win against Alabama in early November. Up 17-7 in the second quarter after a 96-yard touchdown drive, Clemson allowed a long touchdown strike on the ensuing possession as LSU morphed into the team that had put together a historic charge to the championship game.
“It’s about staying ahead of schedule, ahead of the chains,” said quarterback Trevor Lawrence. “As good as they played defensively we had a lot of opportunities and just didn’t capitalize.”
Lawrence will inevitably shoulder much of the blame for Clemson’s offensive inefficiency. One year after bursting onto the national stage with a near-perfect performance in the lopsided win against Alabama, the sophomore had the worst game of his career in completing just 18 of his 37 attempts, including just eight of his last 22 throws, for 234 yards and no touchdowns. Lawrence had thrown for at least two scores in each of his games since October, and had at least one score in every game he had began and finished since ascending into the starting lineup last September.
“We got ourselves in a bunch of pickles,” said senior offensive tackle Tremayne Anchrum. “We had opportunities to win. The game was in our grasp the majority of the time and then we let it slip. So that’s a more painful loss than just losing outright.
“Ton of missed opportunities. Ton of mistakes. We can’t have that if you’re going to be a championship program.”
Clemson’s dynasty is deferred and delayed, but only momentarily. Several key pieces will depart, including three ahead of schedule in would-be seniors Travis Etienne, Isaiah Simmons and Tee Higgins. But Lawrence will return, and “I think this is just going to take him to the next level,” Pollard said. The staff remains intact minus Scott, while the youthful makeup of this year’s roster will benefit from the ice-water reminder, courtesy of LSU, that winning a championship is not as easy as the program’s recent history has made it look.
Clemson was given the same reminder two years ago after Alabama’s convincing win in the national semifinals. What followed was one national championship and 29 wins in a row, tied for the fifth-longest streak during college football’s modern era. Monday night’s loss could spark a similar surge back to the top of the FBS.
“The message is yes, it didn’t end the way we wanted to,” said co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “Not the moment that we want. But we’re not defined by a moment. We have an expectation as a program to get to this point year-in and year-out, and that’s our responsibility to learn from the mistakes in this game, to get better this spring and carry it into the summer. Just continue to do what we do as a program.”
Speaking to his team after the game, coach Dabo Swinney told Clemson to “keep our heads up,” said wide receiver Tee Higgins. “You win some, you lose some. It’s been a hell of a run.”
To Clemson, the loss to LSU was painful but not fatal, disappointing but educational. Four years ago, after the Tigers’ 45-40 loss to Alabama, Swinney said Clemson now was fully aware of what it took to win a national championship, and “we’ll get there,” he promised. He was right. The Tigers will leave the Superdome and prepare for another run from a different point of view: Clemson knows it’ll be back.
“We’ve been here before,” said co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “We know what it looks like.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.