ATLANTA—When Joe Burrow let fly the pass that could define his entire college career, there wasn’t a single LSU player within 10 yards of where it would land.
Georgia had sent six men in to bring down Burrow, and it was working. He was on the run, deep in his own territory, mere steps from his own end zone. He could have run out of bounds, he could have thrown the ball into the stands. Hell, he could have just slid and taken the loss; he was already up 20-3 on a listless Georgia in the SEC championship, well on the way to the eventual 37-10 blowout.
Instead, he went for the killshot. He raced toward the line of scrimmage, Georgia nose tackle Jordan Davis curling behind him like a water skier. Burrow crow-hopped and unleashed a pass that traveled 43 yards in the air … right into the arms of Justin Jefferson, who crossed the field and caught it just in time.
Goodnight, Georgia pic.twitter.com/IFR2CHHRh1
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) December 7, 2019
The Georgia defense was so discombobulated by the move that Jefferson tacked on another 28 yards of chaotic open-field running, finally hitting the turf at the Georgia 9. Three plays later, the Tigers stomped back into the end zone and sent all but the most diehard Georgia fans scrambling back to Athens.
Joe Burrow didn’t just create something out of nothing; he created brilliance out of nothing. And that’s why he’s going to be a very real problem for the team(s) he plays next in the College Football Playoff.
The origin of Joe Burrow
You probably already know the broad sketches of Burrow’s origin story. College football thrives on backup-makes-good stories like this. Buried on the Ohio State bench behind J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins, he transferred to LSU, beat out three other challengers for the job, and led LSU to a 10-3 record and a Fiesta Bowl victory in 2018.
Burrow was very good, but not yet spectacular. That would happen when he connected with Joe Brady, a passing-game Jedi who rolled into Baton Rouge after working an hour down the road with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Brady and Burrow didn’t just pull LSU’s passing game into the 21st century, they launched it, a terrifying dragon of a shotgun spread offense that vaporized every defense it encountered. (Coming into Saturday, Georgia had given up just 10.4 points a game, 2nd in the nation. Burrow and LSU nearly quadrupled that.)
“In my opinion, he’s the best player in the country,” LSU head coach Ed Orgeron thundered after the game. “The best thing about Joe is he’s a team player. All he wants to do is win this game. Individual awards are not high on his list.”
Which is ironic, since he’s high on plenty of lists himself. He set the SEC’s single-season passing yardage record last week, and set the league’s touchdown record Saturday. It’s a tangible testament to one of the most remarkable offensive makeovers in recent college football history.
LSU takes flight
Where LSU had once plodded its way to victory, it now flies. At any moment in the game, the Tigers can execute an array of short-yardage slants and digs, prodding and poking at a defense to hone in on its weak spots. And once LSU finds that soft underbelly, things get really ugly. The receivers swarm overmatched secondaries, the running game gashes holes in overworked D-lines. That’s how you end up with plays like that 71-yard beauty Saturday night: Because the defense is so overwhelmed it doesn’t know where the next hit’s coming from.
“We have five guys that can hurt you, and you’re going to have to pick your poison,” Burrow said. “If you want to take away Ja’Marr [Chase] and Justin, you’re going to have to deal with Thad [Moss], Clyde [Edwards-Helaire] and Terrace [Marshall Jr.].”
At the center of all this is Burrow, who’s scarily serene. He’s not a big-speech-in-the-huddle guy, staying positive without getting rah-rah. He’s the all-but-certain Heisman winner. He’s already drawing comparisons to everyone from Brees to Dak Prescott to Tom Brady himself. But, at least to this point, it hasn’t gone to his head.
“Joe doesn’t let the big moments get to him,” Jefferson told Yahoo Sports out on the confetti-strewn turf. “He keeps calm in big-game situations. That’s what makes him so great.”
“Joe’s quiet, doesn’t say much,” Orgeron rumbled. “He leads by his actions … He does it on the field. He backs it up.”
“We’d all die for him,” said running back Tyrion Davis-Price. “I lay it on the line every play for him. I love Joe.”
Saturday, Burrow finished with 349 yards on 28 completions and four touchdowns through the air, along with 53 yards on the ground. He treated the vaunted Georgia defense like a practice squad, a mild challenge but no more.
Which brings us back to that monstrous play, where Jefferson’s six-yard hitch route turned into a 71-yard gain. It didn’t win the game. But it defined Burrow and the LSU offense, and it’s why you can’t ever assume you’ve got the Tigers down.
“It was all improvised,” Burrow said after the game. “[Jefferson] saw me scrambling and took off deep. We’ve got a great feel for each other. I knew exactly where he was going to be when I got out of there.”
Even Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had to tip his visor to the play. “That one was frustrating because we thought we had a really good call on it,” he said. “We had pressure, and we had a guy come scot-free … I thought that was the perfect call by our defensive coordinator, and they made a better play than we made a call.”
Asked about how much of those broken plays are scripted, Jefferson smiled. “With this offense,” he said, “nothing ever happens that’s planned.”
It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and a hell of a problem to defend. The Tigers now get three weeks to prepare for their next opponent, whoever it may be. If LSU prepares the way it has all season, Burrow will know five different ways to beat them right from the opening kick.
More from Yahoo Sports: