He also, as a transfer from Ohio State to LSU just 18 months ago, arrived at an unimagined height of an unforeseen climb, the plot twists of which seemed to thicken a deeply emotional acceptance speech.
“No, I think the first thing I want to say is,” he began, then got choked up and paused at length. Then he thanked LSU’s offensive linemen and named their names. Then he mentioned receivers, and the whole team of “brothers” who embraced an outsider, and even thanked a further school, Ohio State.
Soon, he said: “Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area, and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people who don’t have a lot. And I’m up here for all those kids in Athens County who go home with not a lot of food on the table. You guys can be up here, too.”
And as he looked at LSU Coach Ed Orgeron in the front row beside Burrow’s parents, and Orgeron looked back at Burrow, both teared up as Burrow said, “You have no idea what you mean to my family.” Then, pausing again and noting the chance Orgeron took on Burrow: “And I’m forever grateful for you.”
Back at the base of this story arc, Burrow transferred from Ohio State in spring 2018 after the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback job went to Dwayne Haskins, nowadays of the Washington Redskins. Burrow, the son of a former Nebraska football player and longtime college assistant, and the brother of two former Nebraska defenders, picked LSU and spent 2018 looking pretty good.
Piloting an LSU offense long bemoaned as plodding, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound native of Athens, Ohio, finished 65th in the nation with a passer rating of 133.2 and 52nd with 222.6 yards per game. LSU did go 10-3, but as it lost 27-19 at Florida, 29-0 at home to Alabama and 74-72 in seven overtimes at Texas A&M, Burrow went largely unnoticed.
On the various Heisman-prospect lists of August, he routinely appeared below not only the favorites Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama and Trevor Lawrence of Clemson, but other quarterbacks such as Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Texas’s Sam Ehlinger, Michigan’s Shea Patterson and Georgia’s Jake Fromm, as well as Hurts and Fields, the two quarterbacks who joined Young, Ohio State’s defensive Hercules, as Heisman finalists alongside Burrow.
Yet a curious wrinkle had come about between last season and this past August. LSU, Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger dared to change their X-and-O stripes, installed a spread offense and welcomed passing coordinator Joe Brady, then 29 and fresh off two seasons with the New Orleans Saints. By late summer, as LSU began its soar to 13-0 and its first College Football Playoff berth, the Tigers’ definition, energy and statistics had changed.
A passing game that finished No. 116 in 2014, No. 106 in 2015, No. 101 in 2016, No. 84 in 2017 and No. 67 in 2018 sprang to No. 2 in 2019, largely through the mastery Burrow left strewn across storied American fields such as Texas, Alabama and Atlanta (against Georgia in the SEC championship game). Receiving yards went lavished on brilliant wideouts such as Ja’Marr Chase (1,498), Justin Jefferson (1,207) and Terrace Marshall Jr. (545).
From 2,894 passing yards in 13 games in 2018, Burrow ascended to 4,715 in 13 games so far in 2019. He threw 48 touchdown passes against six interceptions. His rating (201.5) placed him second in the country (behind Tagovailoa), and his yardage per game (362.7) placed him second behind Washington State’s Anthony Gordon.
He went 31 for 39 at both Texas and Alabama, and 21 for 24 against Florida, 32 for 42 against Auburn, 23 for 32 against Texas A&M. He got a ride on his teammates’ shoulders after the 46-41 win at Alabama.
By Dec. 7, Orgeron said: “I remember his first day coming here; we were running 110s. I don’t know how many there were, 16, and he won every one. The next day he did it again, and the next day he did it again. He kept his mouth shut and worked hard, and eventually he took over this football team. This is his team, and the reason it’s his team, it’s because he’s earned their respect. I’ve got to give it to Joe. Joe’s quiet, doesn’t say much. He leads by his actions. … The whole team, everybody in the organization, believes in Joe.”
By Saturday, clearly, everybody outside the organization did, too.