NEW ORLEANS — There was time on the clock, but not enough to matter. The ending was in stone.
Dabo Swinney grabbed Trevor Lawrence’s head, comforting his golden-armed, golden-haired quarterback with words of encouragement the coach hadn’t prepared to say.
Lawrence didn’t utter a word. He wasn’t familiar with what he was feeling. He would leave a football field in defeat for the first time in more than two years, for the first time in 26 games as Clemson’s starting quarterback.
“I told him I love him, and that, hey, this is a great opportunity to lead and respond,” Swinney said following the 42-25 national title loss to LSU. “He’s had so much good. We all have. We’ve had so much unbelievable success, so many great things, and he’s never lost a game. And he’s not going to lose many. I’ll go ahead and tell you that right now.
“He’s going to be a hard guy to beat forever because he’s special. He had a tough night. For whatever reason, just didn’t have his best night.”
One year after Lawrence became the first true freshman starting quarterback to lead his team to a national title since 1985 — torching Nick Saban and Alabama for 347 yards and three touchdowns — the presumptive top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft was severely outplayed by Heisman winner Joe Burrow, who threw for 463 yards and five touchdowns, while Lawrence completed 18 of 37 passes for 234 yards with no passing touchdowns and a fumble.
“It sucks,” Lawrence said. “A moment like this happens and, man, it sucks.”
Lawrence’s first loss since a Nov. 17, 2017 high school playoff game included 13 overthrows — his previous career-high was five — which tied for the most by any quarterback in a game this season.
“I wasn’t accurate,” Lawrence said following Clemson’s first loss in 30 games. “Didn’t put the ball where it needed to be, didn’t give my guys a chance enough, and it comes down to that really. LSU did a good job, but I just didn’t play well enough for us to win. Too many missed plays by me, missed a lot of receivers. It just wasn’t my night.”
Early, Lawrence’s experience seemed crucial. The sophomore had the game’s first score on a 1-yard touchdown, and put LSU in its biggest hole of the season, 17-7, in the second quarter.
Over the final 43 minutes, Clemson would score just one more time. Lawrence lost the ball on his final touch. Swinney approached him on the sideline.
“I wouldn’t trade that guy for nobody,” Swinney said. “I know exactly how he’ll respond. It’s easy when everything is good. So I just told him I’m proud of him and appreciated his fight, his grit, his will, and hey, that’s ball. Listen, he was giving everything he had.”
Lawrence will be a Heisman favorite next fall, leading the likely top-ranked team entering next season. He will have a chance at a second ring, a chance to achieve as much as any player ever.
“We’re going to be fine,” Lawrence said. “We’ll be back. We’ve done some great things and we got a lot more in store ahead for sure.”
There probably is. But perfection has passed.