Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers wrapped up one of the best seasons in college football history with their 42-25 win over Clemson (Banner Society’s Jason Kirk broke down how they might be the best team in history in the last Shutdown Fullcast). Clemson kept it close for over a quarter and a half until Burrow and LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady figured out how to attack Brent Venables’ defense.
Coming into the game, Clemson’s defense had held all but one opponent to negative average expected points added (EPA) and below a 32 percent EPA success rate. Ohio State managed to average 0.02 EPA (at the 55th percentile for all offensive performances this season) and a 31 percent EPA success rate. But after punting on their first three possessions, LSU would go on to score touchdowns on four of their remaining five possessions of the first half. LSU’s offense averaged 0.23 EPA per play against Clemson (at the 84th percentile) and a 39.5 percent EPA success rate, blowing past the standard Clemson’s defense had set throughout the year.
By halftime, LSU was up 28-17 following an 11-play, 95-yard touchdown drive. Clemson forced three-and-outs on LSU’s first two possessions of the second half and scored a touchdown on their first possession to close the gap to three points, but LSU wouldn’t look back from that point on, keeping Clemson off-kilter on offense and adding a few touchdowns of their own.
In many ways, LSU simply played the same style of game they have played all season long. Joe Burrow threw the ball nearly 50 times, averaging 0.29 EPA per pass attempt (72nd percentile). He connected on a few long passes, mostly to Ja’Marr Chase, with just three of those passes going for a total of 151 yards and adding almost 14 expected points on their own.
Despite a hamstring injury that limited his effectiveness in the semifinal, Clyde Edwards-Helaire had 16 carries for 110 yards and five catches for 54 yards (with a rushing EPA performance in the 78th percentile), reinforcing his argument as the best pass-catching running back in FBS this season. None of those stats are surprising; It was the offense’s fifth-lowest EPA output of the season, but not far off their median performance of 0.34 EPA.
While Ja’Marr Chase added 14 EPA on just three pivotal plays (which were all either touchdowns or set up touchdowns), it would be wrong to suggest that LSU was reliant on explosive plays. Burrow moved the ball steadily through the air, while Edwards-Helaire was exceedingly efficient on the ground. LSU’s EPA normalized success rate (in the 83.7 percentile) was higher than their normalized EPA explosiveness rate (in the 37th percentile; defined here as the top 10 percent of all EPA plays this season).
In addition to their mix of efficient rushing and passing with occasional bombs to Ja’Marr Chase, LSU beat Clemson in large part based on the play of their defense. After allowing Ole Miss to run all over the Tigers’ second string in garbage time, allowing Vanderbilt to score 38, and Alabama to keep pace with the Tigers, there were legitimate if overstated concerns about whether LSU was balanced enough to win a title despite their otherworldly offense. But Clemson averaged -0.09 EPA and just a 32 percent EPA success rate against the Tigers. While LSU started the game off by averaging -0.22 EPA in the first quarter, Clemson only had a single quarter with a positive average EPA on offense — the second quarter, averaging 0.09. Particularly in the second half, where Clemson averaged -0.21 and -0.39 EPA and punted on four straight drives following their opening touchdown, Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers just couldn’t mount a steady drive.
Lawrence completed under 50 percent of his passes with a slightly more shallow receiving corps, and aside from a 29-yard run, Travis Etienne had only 14 other carries for 49 yards. That was solidly efficient — the run game was in the 91st percentile in rushing EPA success rate — but their explosive plays weren’t as consequential. For example, LSU has 12 plays that were either runs of 12+ yards or passes of 20+ yards. Two of those plays went for touchdowns and three others were gains to within the red zone (and two of those were within the Clemson six-yard line). In contrast, only one of Clemson’s ten explosive plays went for a touchdown, and only two ended inside the red zone. Combine LSU’s edge in explosiveness with their edge in efficiency (39.5 percent EPA success rate to Clemson’s 32.3 percent), and you have everything necessary for a convincing win.
- Joe Burrow ended the season with an average passing EPA of 0.21 and an average passing EPA success rate of 41.5 percent, good for third in both categories. Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa swap first and second in both stats (and Justin Fields is fourth and fifth, for context next season). Burrow never threw for fewer than 278 yards in a game (his first game of the season, against Georgia Southern) and never completed fewer than 71.1 percent of his passes except against Clemson, where he still completed 63.3 percent. Given the level of competition Burrow faced — Texas, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson — it’s reasonable to argue that this was one of the best passing performances in college football history (despite the fact that Hurts and Tua had higher EPA success rates and mean EPA per play averages).
- According to ESPN’s win probability chart, Clemson started as a slight favorite, and stayed that way until there was 6:03 in the second quarter — right before the Tigers scored to take the lead 21-17 over Clemson. That scoring drive typified LSU’s offense this season. After an incomplete pass on first-and-ten from the LSU 13, Joe Burrow would run for ten yards, then complete four straight passes to three different receivers, each gaining between 14 and 23 yards. While two of those were technically explosive (going by the 20 yard pass definition), none were the deep bombs that you might expect given LSU’s box scores. Instead, Joe Burrow was just methodical at picking apart defenses in the intermediate game, with a legitimate five different targets.
- Ja’Marr Case, WR, LSU. The Biletnikoff Award winner finished with nine catches for 221 yards, including long catches of 56, 52, and 43 yards. Given the level of competition that was easily his best game of the season, but it was actually his third-highest total in terms of receiving yards, as he had 227 and 229 yards against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
- It’s tough to pick a single defender here, as nearly all of LSU’s star defenders had a signature play. Patrick Queen led the way with 2.5 tackles for loss with half a sack and a team-leading eight total tackles. Grant Delpit had a sack on the opening drive, then forced the game-sealing fumble that Derek Stingley Jr. recovered with just under four minutes left in the game. It was a long shot for Clemson to come back at that point, but the turnover ensured that LSU fans wouldn’t have to sweat through the final minutes.
Thanks to @msubbiaiah and his cfbscrapR package for EPA data!