And you should know by now that Lawrence doesn’t really do awkward. Majestic, certainly. Undefeated, still. He doesn’t leave much room to be thought of as anything other than one of the great quarterback phenoms college football has ever seen — very much like Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning, except with a luxurious mane. Yet here he was, uncertain and insecure about a little pop pass. So, of course, the play would need to be executed with less than two minutes to play in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night, with an appearance in the national title game at stake.
“Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of the play in practice,” Lawrence said. “It’s tough if the defense doesn’t really bite on it and that safety comes down hard. It takes it away.”
Interjected Coach Dabo Swinney: “Is that why you threw it in the dirt two or three times?”
Nevertheless, Lawrence fooled the Ohio State defense and slipped the perfect pass to Etienne, who scored a 34-yard touchdown with 1:49 remaining to finish Clemson’s wild and willful 29-23 comeback victory at State Farm Stadium.
“It wasn’t clean,” Lawrence said of rehearsing the play. “I hadn’t had great practice reps.”
Nevertheless, when it mattered, you wouldn’t have known Lawrence was uncomfortable. You wouldn’t have known he got clocked earlier in the game and suffered a stinger that left him “kind of pissed off.” You wouldn’t have known that this game represented his toughest challenge since he burst on the scene as a freshman last season and led the Tigers to the national championship.
When you have a 25-0 collegiate record as a starter to go with a massive 6-foot-6 frame, quick feet and a rocket arm, people tend to focus on your most obvious blessings. But as Lawrence showed in helping Clemson rally from a 16-0 deficit, he isn’t just some anointed quarterback unwilling to fight. He has the grit to go with his physical gifts. And while he made three or four plays in this game that most NFL superstars can’t, his leadership and composure meant just as much to the victory.
Almost 2,000 miles away in Atlanta, in the other national semifinal, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow flashed his Heisman Trophy talent and verified his standing as college football’s best player with another flawless performance in a 63-28 victory over Oklahoma. On Saturday night, no one could have been more impressive than Burrow, who threw seven touchdown passes in the first half and rushed for one in the second. But that doesn’t diminish the night Lawrence had in the desert.
He had some ugly moments, but he was determined. He threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for 107 yards and scored on a 67-yard dash, juking and weaving through defenders like a kickoff returner. That run powered the comeback. And that fourth-quarter jump pass — the last of a four-play, 94-yard, 78-second masterpiece — won the game.
Ohio State was left to lament several officiating calls, most significantly a scoop-and-score touchdown overturned upon replay in the third quarter. But the resilience of Lawrence and Clemson factored into the Buckeyes’ frustration as well. They had a chance to put the game out of reach early, but they settled for field goals on too many drives. Clemson was bound to come back.
“It is just the DNA,” Swinney said of his team’s persistence. “It is our program. It’s not just this season. That’s how we’re built.”
Lawrence’s counterpart Saturday, Justin Fields, was brilliant, throwing for 320 yards and grinding out some tough runs on an injured knee. But he also threw two interceptions, including the game-ender that resulted from a miscommunication with wide receiver Chris Olave. Lawrence didn’t commit a turnover and seized every pivotal moment. Throwing, running, running and jumping and throwing — Lawrence was committed to doing what was necessary.
“Whatever it takes,” Lawrence said.
In the huddle before the Tigers’ winning drive, Swinney told the offense, “Let’s go win it, man!” Then he stepped back and let Lawrence take over. In his short collegiate career, he has earned the right to speak.
“Hey, man, I love all of you guys,” Lawrence began his speech before focusing on business.
Because he hasn’t lost in college, you can say Lawrence hasn’t faced much adversity. It’s certainly true that the Tigers’ 2019 schedule didn’t put them against the ropes like this. But there is an unappreciated pressure to being Lawrence, the freshman champion on a team that many assumed would roll to another championship this season. Before the season began, before Burrow and LSU emerged as a complete team with an all-time offense, there was heavy scrutiny of Lawrence, who went on to throw five interceptions in his first three games as he struggled to live up to expectations that he was college football’s best player.
He handled the criticism well, especially for a college sophomore. Now look at his numbers: 36 touchdowns, eight interceptions. He has thrown for more yards, completed a higher percentage of his passes and posted a higher quarterback rating than he did as a freshman. He also has embraced the impact he can have as a runner, nearly tripling his rushing yards from a year ago.
After witnessing Lawrence turn into a galloping Lamar Jackson on the 67-yard touchdown, Clemson guard John Simpson said, “I didn’t think he was slow, but I didn’t know he had that kind of speed.”
This season, Lawrence has managed to go from overhyped and overexposed to a little underrated, which says more about the mercurial nature of fame than anything he did. No matter how he’s viewed, he is still winning. He is still improving. And he is still shaking off frustration in practice and learning new tricks.
In two weeks, he’ll face his greatest challenge. The way LSU is playing, the Tigers might be unbeatable. But there’s no better team to test their invincibility than Clemson, the defending champion and aspiring dynasty.
It’s a game that features the surgical Burrow, the transfer-turned-franchise player who is almost certain to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. But on the other side will be Lawrence, the probable No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, who has added unflappable to his list of admirable traits. The young College Football Playoff has already showcased some dream quarterback matchups, but this could be the best one of all.