The big quarterback with the long, blond hair and the languid smile — this was the kid who was supposed to get nervous? The one who was supposed to crack under pressure?
It was only a few days ago that Trevor Lawrence insisted “no moment is too big. … I feel like I was made for moments like this.”
The 19-year-old freshman proved it Monday night, leading second-ranked Clemson to a dominating performance against No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship, a 44-16 upset that was more convincing than anyone outside of South Carolina might have imagined.
“Yeah, I mean, the games like this,” he said, “you’ve got to make the big plays.“
His 347 yards and three touchdowns through the air were only part of the story. The Tigers also needed a defense that left one of the nation’s most potent offenses searching for answers.
“We certainly didn’t play well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “And we had some issues.”
But it was Lawrence who made the largest difference in this matchup between two programs that have risen to a level above everyone else, meeting in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
The Tigers (15-0), winning their second national title over that stretch, came into Levi’s Stadium as the underdog, in large part because no one knew how Lawrence might respond in the spotlight.
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was supposed to have the edge in experience and composure, given his gutsy, off-the-bench performance in the second half of last season’s national championship.
Yet, it was Tagovailoa, a sophomore, who blinked first.
Early in the first quarter, facing a blitz, he threw toward receiver Jerry Jeudy near the sideline. Cornerback A. J. Terrell jumped the route, making the interception and sprinting 44 yards for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
The advantage didn’t last long.
On the Crimson Tide’s next possession, Jeudy tricked a safety into biting on a short move, then streaked by for a 62-yard touchdown reception.
Two touchdowns in less than three minutes. Just that quickly, the race for the title was on.
With the teams rushing up and down the field at breakneck pace, only timeouts and television commercials gave the crowd of 74,814 a chance to catch its breath. And only a missed extra-point attempt, the ninth of the season for Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas, kept Clemson in the lead 14-13 after the first quarter.
Three years ago, when these teams met for the title in Phoenix, Nick Saban sensed that his defense couldn’t stop the Tigers, so he called for an onside kick in the fourth quarter, gaining an extra possession that made the difference in a 45-40 victory.
Maybe he got the same inkling this time, albeit earlier on, gambling twice on fourth down, including once on Alabama’s 34, and converting both times.
But it didn’t do the Crimson Tide team much good as Lawrence quickly settled down.
At 6 feet 6 and 215 pounds, the Georgia native is obviously strong but also possessed an uncanny calmness while facing one of the toughest defenses in the country.
Whether lofting a 62-yard pass to receiver Tee Higgins, who had snuck behind the secondary, or showing his arm strength with a deep sideline throw, he found his rhythm through the second quarter. It helped that the offensive line gave him precious seconds against an Alabama rush that was supposed to pressure him.
A five-yard touchdown pass to running back Travis Etienne and three completions that led to a 36-yard field goal staked Clemson to a 31-16 lead at halftime.
“We’re not playing very well on defense,” Saban said. “Can’t get off the field on third down and too many penalties.”
Tagovailoa, meanwhile, started the third quarter needing to pull himself together after throwing a second interception and taking a costly sack when he failed to spot a wide-open running back on the blitz.
“We were killing ourselves,” he said.
So there was a sniff of desperation as Alabama stalled on its opening drive in the second half and set up for a 40-yard field-goal attempt. Knowing that Bulovas has struggled all season, the Tigers sensed a fake and they were right.
Holder and backup quarterback Mac Jones took off running with the snap but was pulled down for a two-yard loss.
That led to a play that all but ended this game with 8 minutes 26 seconds left in the third quarter.
Lawrence dropped back and glanced at receiver Justyn Ross, a fellow freshman. Defensive back Saivion Smith tried to jam Ross at the line but crumpled in pain, grabbing his leg.
With Ross streaking downfield — he would finish with 153 yards receiving — Lawrence hit him in stride for a 74-yard touchdown and a 37-16 lead.
The Crimson Tide, struggling on offense after the first quarter, had no real shot at a comeback.
Not with the Clemson defensive line pestering Tago-vailoa, who finished with 295 yards and two touchdowns. Not with the Tigers defense buckling down in an effort to stop the run, holding the Crimson Tide to 148 yards on the ground.
It was a reversal from last season, when Alabama dominated this rivalry with a 24-6 semifinal victory and Clemson defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell recalls that “they just whipped us up front.”
And just to make the difference clear, the Tigers made three consecutive stops just short of their goal line, ending Alabama’s last gasp.
“I just have a feeling I didn’t do a very good job for our team,” Saban said. “Never got comfortable with what we needed to do to win.”
The defeat kept Saban from setting a record with his seventh national championship; he remains tied with Alabama legend Bear Bryant at six.
Asked how it felt to defeat Saban and the Crimson Tide, Lawrence might have been at a loss for the first time all game.