AUSTIN, Texas — Of all the memorable plays from the 45-38 victory by the LSU Tigers over the Texas Longhorns on Saturday, the 61-yard touchdown pass from Joe Burrow to Justin Jefferson on 3rd and 17 with two and a half minutes remaining represents one of the game’s greatest turning points.
With the LSU lead pushed to 14 points following the successful two-point conversions, the game was all but over — Texas had a chance to recover an onside kick and score a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining, but there’s a reason why the win probability for the Tigers jumped to 99.9 percent following Jefferson’s touchdown.
So, what happened on that defining 3rd and 17 play?
For LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, the choice when the drive began was whether to try to run the ball to use clock or to be aggressive in the passing game. In the four-minute offense run by the Tigers, offensive coordinator Steve Emsminger told Orgeron that he thought the pass could pick up the first downs LSU needed.
“Go get it,” Orgeron told his offensive coordinator.
Burrow admitted that was a different approach than LSU used in the past.
“It’s definitely different from what we did last year,” Burrow said. “I think (last year) we would have tried to pound the run game and eat up that clock. You saw it last year against Texas A&M. We didn’t get the job done. And they ended up scoring.”
In fact, Orgeron was worried about a similar scenario playing out — the Longhorns had scored on all four drives in the second half and went on to score another touchdown after getting the ball back.
“I knew if they got the ball back, we couldn’t stop them,” Orgeron said. “Just to be honest, we couldn’t stop them. I think if they’d have gotten the ball back, I think it would have been a different story.”
The drive’s aggressive mindset continued on third down with the Tigers needing 17 yards to keep possession alive and the ball away from the surging Longhorns, so instead of calling a draw play or a screen pass to the running back — ways to run some clock and pick up some yards — LSU called a vertical passing play.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando knew what he wanted to run on third down even before senior safety Brandon Jones sacked Burrow for a seven-yard loss on second down.
When 3rd and 17 happened, the pressure package meshed with his overarching philosophy of aggressiveness in long down-and-distance situations. Unwilling to risk the possibility of the quarterback having extensive time in the pocket and an opposing player getting loose over the top of the secondary, Orlando believes in pressuring the quarterback in those situations.
So his play call was not only predetermined, but also in line what he likes to do in those situations.
“I had the feeling like, they’re going to take these guys down the field, they’re going to run all verticals, and I figured that’s going to buy some time for this pressure to get there,” Orlando said.
Burrow and the Tigers anticipated the blitz, so both sides went into the play knowing what the other side was likely to do.
“I knew they were coming,” Burrow said. “They were blitzing one more than we had to block, and they had a spy on me in the middle. I knew if I bought time, my guys were going to be open.”
Texas brought a Cover Zero blitz with six defenders going after Burrow — the three down lineman, sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai, senior linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch, and Jones — leaving the secondary in man-to-man coverage behind them.
Sophomore safety Caden Sterns was playing with inside leverage against LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who had already gone over 100 yards receiving and scored two touchdowns in the game. He was feeling plenty confident about the play, despite the long down and distance.
“So, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to go vertical.’ The safeties had been looking a little shaky the whole game,” Jefferson said. “So I was like, ‘Okay, let me work something out.’”
Somehow, Jefferson was able to get across the face of Sterns and into open space as Burrow stepped up past the blitzing McCulloch, waiting for Jefferson to make that exact break and trying to buy enough time to make the throw.
“His body language was telling me when he was going to break, so I just jumped,” Burrow said.
All of a sudden, LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry III felt Burrow on his black as he tried to finish his block on Texas senior defensive end Malcolm Roach. Burrow had just released the ball as he launched himself airborne and into Cushenberry as multiple defenders closed in on him.
“I just saw Jets wide open in the middle of the field,” Cushenberry said.
The pass found its way into Jefferson’s hands and Sterns, for whatever reason, broke down just enough when Jefferson turned upfield with the football that he wasn’t able to get his head across the wide receiver to make the tackle. So Jefferson stepped through the attempted arm tackle and left Sterns face first in the artificial turf at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. And no other Texas player was in a position to come close to touching Jefferson as he raced into the end zone.
Orlando’s only regret?
Junior safety Chris Brown was responsible for the running back out of the backfield, but because Brown was playing deep on the snap, when he triggered as the running back blocked McCulloch, he wasn’t able to get to Burrow before he released the football.
Given the chance to do it over again, Orlando would have called the same blitz, except with Brown aligned next to McCulloch so he’d have a better chance of making that play.
Even so, it took a remarkable jump throw from Burrow and two mistakes by Sterns to produce the game-changing play, leaving Orlando without feeling the need to second guess himself.
“He made a slip-slide play and we were just a hair late on it,” Orlando said. “But I would not look at that and have any regrets on that call at all.”