The night Trevor Lawrence couldn’t will his team to victory
Over everything else, the winning coach recalls the silence that spread through the stadium on the cold Georgia night when Trevor Lawrence last lost a football game.
“It was almost eerie,” Tim McFarlin says.
He remembers the pure panic on his sideline too. Twelve seconds remained after the two kids from Blessed Trinity connected on a long touchdown pass to take the lead from Cartersville, 21-17, plenty of time to screw up what would become one of the most notorious upsets in state history, if his players didn’t stop running around in circles like the delirious teenagers they were.
Across the way, a somber group of seniors who had won 41 straight games and back-to-back state championships behind the leadership of a generational quarterback had to fight going into mourning right then.
“Don’t cry until you get in the locker room,” Cartersville coach Joey King told them.
Velus Jones, who served as USC’s primary kickoff returner in 2019, will finish his collegiate career as a graduate transfer at Tennessee.
The Hurricanes did not wait around when the clock hit zero. They did not fall onto the turf and wail in agony or show their pain to their close-knit small town. They quickly retreated to safety, and Lawrence, the star quarterback with the trademark golden locks, went with them, leaving his home field wearing purple and gold for the final time as a surprise loser.
“We had kind of forgotten what that feels like,” says Carson Murray, a senior on that Cartersville team. “It just kind of hit like a ton of bricks. The whole locker room was bawling.”
That was Nov. 17, 2017. It is now January of 2020, and no one could blame Lawrence, Clemson’s sophomore quarterback, if he has again forgotten what what it feels like to lose.
Since he arrived at Clemson, the Tigers are 29-0, with 25 of those wins led by Lawrence as the starter. On Monday night, they will play for their second straight national championship against Louisiana State in the Superdome. If they somehow escape New Orleans with the trophy, it will be a real possibility that Lawrence — who is expected to play one more season before being taken at or near the top of the 2021 NFL draft — will never experience defeat in a college football game.
“When I came to school, I just didn’t want to lose anymore,” Lawrence told reporters in South Carolina this week. “Me and Coach [Dabo] Swinney have had talks. It’s not in the rule book that you have to lose.”
In the last five years, Lawrence has only one reference point, that second-round playoff heartbreak at the hands of Blessed Trinity that came out of nowhere. The assumption, of course, is that he does not have fond memories of the one defeat in his last 71 games and would do anything to avoid it happening again.
Against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl, Lawrence got the ball at the Clemson six-yard line with three minutes left trailing 23-21. He promptly led the Tigers on a four-play, 94-yard, game-winning touchdown drive that was just too easy given the heft of the moment.
“He never succumbs to pressure,” Murray says. “It makes him play better.”
To Murray, who was run over by Lawrence twice the first time he took the field with him as an 8-year-old, it was always going to be this way for his eventual close friend. What the Cartersville boys could not have known was that, around that same time in another metro Atlanta town called Roswell, two boys named Jake Smith and Ryan Davis started playing football together, and they too felt destined for greatness on the gridiron.
But while the quarterback Smith and the wide receiver Davis developed their connection out of the spotlight before deciding to attend Blessed Trinity, it would be different for Lawrence and everyone in his orbit, especially by the time he was in high school.
King took the head coaching job at Cartersville in the spring of Lawrence’s eighth-grade year. He heard that he had a talented incoming junior at quarterback named Miller Forristall who was ranked nationally as a passer and an incoming freshman quarterback who had it all.
“I went to meet with the incoming ninth-grade boys, and I’m trying to figure out which one is him, and he’s about a foot and a half taller than everyone else, easy to pick out,” King says. “We go out to practice, and he’s making throws an eighth-grader’s not supposed to make.”
Upland linebacker Justin Flowe and Rancho Cucamonga quarterback CJ Stroud both opted to leave Southern California to attend Oregon and Ohio State over USC and UCLA.
Heading into the next season, King decided to let Forristall and Lawrence compete for the job. Similar to what would later happen at Clemson with incumbent starter Kelly Bryant, the players split time during the first four games before King had to have an uncomfortable talk with Forristall.
“To his credit, he said, ‘I can’t make the plays this freshman’s making,’ ” King says.
Apparently, everything that Lawrence touches turns to gold, because Forristall would move to tight end and earn a scholarship to Alabama, where he is now the starter.
Once in control, Lawrence took over Georgia’s ultra-competitive high school football scene for the next four years. With his combination of size, speed and that big, accurate right arm, he emerged as the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation.
“Coaches coming in, media calling, random people walking in the front office off the street, vans parked in the parking lot after practice with people looking for him to sign stuff … you name it,” King says. “I’d get stuff addressed to him at the school, some bad stuff, and I’d throw it away, and he never knew it existed.”
There was no way to fully protect him from his own legend, though.
Highlights from a high school football game between Blessed Trinity at Cartersville.
“He did not like it,” Murray says. “He’s a quiet guy. We’d be out and people would ask him for his autograph. As soon as the first one asked, everybody else would. There were sometimes we’d say, ‘Hey, wanna go do something?’ And he’d say, ‘Can we just stay in and hang out?’ Or he’d wear a hood and try to hide his hair.”
Thirty-five miles away in Roswell, the Blessed Trinity team followed Lawrence’s exploits, like anyone who kept up with the prep scene.
“You just have to say his first name, and everybody knows who you’re talking about,” McFarlin says.
“He was the face of high school football for a minute there,” says Jake Rudolph, a Blessed Trinity linebacker.
In 2017, when Blessed Trinity was placed into Cartersville’s side of the playoff bracket, the Titans were not happy. The Hurricanes were routinely putting up 50-plus points, and when their matchup was set, Blessed Trinity figured to be about a 30-point underdog.
That offseason, McFarlin had brought John Thompson, a longtime college football defensive coordinator, out of retirement to run his defense. As Thompson watched film of Lawrence, the only comparison he could make from all his years in coaching was another quarterback who wore No. 16.
“His name was Peyton Manning,” says Thompson, who went against Manning at Tennessee when he coached at Southern Mississippi. “Trevor is still the best high school quarterback I’ve ever seen.”
Christaphany Murray, an offensive lineman who started all 24 games in his two seasons at UCLA, announced he has entered the transfer portal. He said the decision was “personal.”
But Thompson noticed that the other teams Cartersville had played were too afraid to blitz Lawrence.
“We said, ‘Hey, let’s fire all our shots,’ ” Thompson says. “If they had five guys blocking, we were going to bring six. If they had six blocking, we were going to try to bring seven.”
The Titans had been hearing about Lawrence and watching his highlights for years. All of a sudden, “You open your eyes, look up, and there he is across the line from you,” Rudolph says.
“Once the game starts, all that hype, all the stars, all the rankings and everything just goes out the door,” Davis says, “and it’s really just athletes playing against athletes.”
Blessed Trinity’s plan worked from the start, rattling Lawrence and giving the Titans confidence. Blessed Trinity took a 14-3 lead to the half. The Hurricanes answered with the help of a punt return for a touchdown to take a 17-14 lead into the final minutes.
Blessed Trinity got the ball back late after forcing a fumble and had a chance to tie the score with a field goal or go for the win. The Titans, facing third and nine, were set up for about a 42-yard field-goal attempt. Instead of running the ball and going for the tie, McFarlin decided to throw one downfield. In his mind, he had just the guys to do it.
Smith, who would go on to play quarterback at Air Force, and Davis, who is now a receiver at Alabama Birmingham, had been hitting a double move off a play-action pass all season. For that matter, they’d been playing pitch and catch their whole lives. McFarlin dialed it up.
Davis made his move and shook the cornerback. Smith was pressured but got the ball up for him. All Davis had to do was beat the safety to it in the back of the end zone.
As the ball found Davis’ hands, all Lawrence could do was watch, helplessly.
“Somewhere between really good and pretty stupid,” McFarlin says of the call. “I’m serious. We could have easily taken a sack and gotten thrown out of field-goal range, or an interception. A thousand things could have happened. But there’s just a time in the game where you feel like you gotta take that shot.”
For Cartersville, it was a shot to the heart.
“A shock to the community,” King says.
“They were good, but not our caliber of good,” says Murray, who played his last football game that night. “I really miss it. I think about it, I wouldn’t say super often, but it crosses our mind. Me and my buddies like to make up a bunch of excuses for why we lost, like guys do.”
Life moved on for everybody. King is now an assistant at South Florida under new head coach Jeff Scott, who coached Lawrence the last two seasons at Clemson as offensive coordinator.
McFarlin and Blessed Trinity went on to win state in 2017 and repeated that feat in 2018, beating Cartersville in the title game.
With Lawrence and Clemson on the precipice of another championship, McFarlin put on the film from the 2017 Cartersville game because some new coaches on his staff had asked to see it.
“I can promise you, I wouldn’t want to play that game again,” McFarlin says with a laugh.
Thompson, the last defensive coordinator to flummox Lawrence, went back into retirement after the second state championship.
This week, he heard from an old player of his — Ed Orgeron. It is probably not a coincidence that Orgeron, now the LSU coach tasked with taking down Lawrence on Monday, called Thompson, who coached him at Northwestern (La.) State, at this moment.
“He already knew it, he had talked to Tim McFarlin,” says Thompson, who was Orgeron’s defensive coordinator at Mississippi in 2007. “We were laughing about it.”
Did he share any secrets with Orgeron?
“No, I don’t think they need any pointers,” Thompson says. “Even though that was good at the time, the stakes are a little bit different now.”
While Thompson has a personal reason to root for LSU on Monday night, most everyone affiliated with Blessed Trinity will be cheering for Lawrence.
After all, the more he wins, the more legendary their win becomes.
“What he’s done in college football is unheard of,” Rudolph says. “It’s crazy to watch him do it, knowing we were the last team that beat him. It’s kind of surreal, especially if he can cap this game off, I really don’t see him losing the rest of his college career.”
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