Eight years. Now, to be clear, Joe Burrow has not been around the state of Louisiana for that long, but the one time he played quarterback against the Alabama Crimson Tide, his offense did not score a point. Tiger Stadium was not a happy place.
So, more than a year later on Saturday night, when Clyde Edwards-Helaire chugged into the end zone to give Louisiana State a 12-point lead over Alabama with less than two minutes left, Burrow bounded toward his tailback and celebrated by motioning as if cutting a throat with a knife.
Had LSU really slain the dragon? It sure looked like it in the northeast corner of Bryant-Denny Stadium, where a few thousand brave souls wearing purple and gold danced and bobbed within a sea of crimson. But, as delirious chants of “L-S-U” reverberated through the crisp Alabama night, Tua Tagovailoa promptly heaved another long touchdown pass to the electric DeVonta Smith, and the travelers from the Bayou fell silent.
The dragon was not dead. Burrow had to learn what all LSU folks know well, which is, to kill a Nick Saban Alabama team, you have to do it multiple times.
To finish off the Crimson Tide on Saturday, all the Tigers had to do was to recover an onside kick and get one first down. Edwards-Helaire barreled through the Alabama defense for a 12-yard gain, and LSU, which won this latest college football “Game of the Century” 46-41, didn’t bother sticking around to check Alabama’s pulse.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron, after gutting out an emotional interview with CBS in which he was surrounded by his wife and three sons, rallied his players to midfield, where the Tigers gathered to “break it down” on the Alabama logo.
Next, it was on to sing the alma mater with Burrow, the Heisman Trophy front-runner and football’s newest blonde-haired and blue-eyed “Joe Cool” who torched Alabama’s secondary for 393 yards and three touchdowns.
“I’m glad we went and ate crawfish that night and you decided to come,” Orgeron told him, recalling his recruiting visit to Baton Rouge.
Burrow left Ohio State after three years in the spring of 2018 because he couldn’t crack the Buckeyes’ stacked depth chart. Saturday night, he left Bryant-Denny Stadium on the shoulders of a couple of his offensive linemen.
“That was pretty special, you know,” Burrow said. “Having the guys embrace me the way they have, just some quarterback from Ohio who came in last June before the season, it means a lot to me.”
Of course, every player or coach that took part in this No. 1 vs. No. 1 showdown — the Tigers entered the day atop the Associated Press poll, while the Tide were atop the coaches’ poll — is just someone from somewhere.
Edwards-Helaire, the Tigers’ 5-foot-8 locomotive engine, was a mostly overlooked three-star prospect who starred at Baton Rouge’s Catholic High School and decided to stay home to play college football.
Saturday he rushed for 103 yards and three touchdowns in 20 carries and caught nine passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. The networks will be able to construct his entire NFL draft highlight reel from this game.
“He’s an outstanding man from Louisiana,” Orgeron said. “I’m proud of him.”
It had to be the work of Louisiana boys like Edwards-Helaire and Orgeron to end Saban’s near-decade of tyranny. Because it’s just that personal.
Remember, it was Saban who helped LSU first realize its potential in the modern era, leading the Tigers to the 2003 national championship before going to the Miami Dolphins. Les Miles kept the program elite, winning another national title in 2007, but once Saban returned to college coaching with Alabama, the tide began to turn in a hurry in the Southeastern Conference West division.
In 2011, the last great LSU team came into Tuscaloosa and won a defensive slugfest 9-6. Saban got his revenge later that winter in the national championship game with a 21-0 domination in the Superdome.
That was the first of eight straight losses for LSU. Miles moved on in 2016, and LSU turned to Orgeron, its defensive line coach, as its interim head coach.
Orgeron had been in that exact spot three years before, at USC, where he had coached under Pete Carroll during the program’s recent glory run and returned to work under Lane Kiffin. When Kiffin was fired, Orgeron was the interim. He led the Trojans to a 6-2 record and wanted the permanent job, but USC hired Steve Sarkisian instead.
In 2016, Orgeron went 6-2 as the interim coach at LSU, which decided to give the native of Larose, La., his shot.
After a 29-0 loss to Alabama last season in Baton Rouge, that decision came under intense scrutiny. How was a defensive-minded wild man like Orgeron going to take down Saban, especially after Alabama had undergone an offensive transformation led by Tagovailoa?
Orgeron knew he was going to have to allow his offense to evolve if he was ever going to take his childhood team back to the promised land. He hired Joe Brady, a New Orleans Saints offensive assistant, to design a new passing game for LSU. It just so happened that Burrow was around for one more year to see whether he could unlock his own potential.
LSU has been on an offensive tear all season, and, of all things, the Tigers are second in passing offense. No matter what the game flow says, Burrow never stops gunning. That mentality helped Saturday when LSU had to answer Alabama’s second-half push.
“I told them on Monday, we’re the better football team,” Orgeron said. “That’s the first time I’ve told this team going into Alabama. When I got on the plane coming here, I felt like, ‘You know what, we got ’em. We finally got the tools we need, we finally got the players we need, we finally got the coaching staff we need to beat these guys.”
On a day that felt extra momentous because of a visit from President Donald Trump, which brought throaty cheers from Crimson-clad fans in this dependable red state, it was Orgeron of all the leaders who brought Saban-fatigued college football fans across the country the kind of change they can believe in.
For the first time this week in five years of the College Football Playoff, Alabama won’t be in the top four of the CFP rankings. Breathe in the fresh air, Pac-12 playoff hopefuls Oregon and Utah. You can send thank-you notes to the LSU Football Operations Center on Skip Bertman Drive in Baton Rouge.
But enough about the rest of the country. This win was for Louisiana.
For eight years.
“I might be able to go to the 7-Eleven now and get a Monster or a Red Bull, and they won’t have to tell me, ‘Coach O, you gotta beat those guys,’ ” Orgeron said.
“This won’t be the last. We comin’. We comin’. We’re going to continue to rise. We’re going to continue to make progress in this program to bring a championship back to Louisiana. This is not the last time we’re going to beat them, I promise you that.”