Dabo Swinney had a lot to say on Tuesday. Heading into the ACC championship game against Virginia, Clemson’s head coach said his team is underestimated. He said the ACC is underrated. And he said his sophomore quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is playing better football than he was a year ago. “He is twice the quarterback right now that he was in the national championship game when everybody was crowning him the king of football,” Swinney told reporters during a lengthy, impassioned press conference.
On that last point, Swinney may be right, which would have been hard to imagine after Lawrence completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 44-16 thrashing of Alabama in last year’s title game. That night set almost unrealistic expectations for Lawrence’s sophomore season, and for most of this year, Lawrence didn’t live up to them. But over the past five games, he has been the best quarterback in the country — and he has saved Clemson from the perception it has underachieved, turning the Tigers into every bit the juggernaut they were supposed to be.
After Lawrence, the No. 1 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2018, became the first true freshman starting quarterback to win a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1986, no projection seemed too outrageous. Multiple analysts deemed Lawrence flawless. He was, some assumed, a sure No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the first draft for which he will be eligible. He was, with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, a Heisman co-favorite.
But as Clemson started 7-0 and pushed its win streak to 22, Lawrence underperformed relative to his breakout freshman season. In 2018, he threw four interceptions in 397 passes — an interception rate of just 1.0 percent. In the first seven games of this season, he threw eight picks in 190 passes, a rate of 4.2 percent. Louisville picked off Lawrence twice in the first quarter on Oct. 19, and both mistakes were concerning. First, from the Louisville 21-yard line, he threw into coverage and allowed the safety to jump easily and make the catch. Then, from the Louisville 39-yard line, he fired into a crowd of red jerseys again.
Those plays were meaningless — Clemson won by more than 30 for the second straight week — but after that game, only one Power Five quarterback had more interceptions than Lawrence did. Compared with the more dominant LSU and Ohio State teams, Clemson’s struggles in the early goings stood out: On Nov. 5, the College Football Playoff selection committee put the reigning national champions fifth. Rob Mullens, the committee chair, pointed to a close call against North Carolina: The Tigers needed to stop a last-minute 2-point conversion for the 21-20 win.
After Clemson coasted past Louisville, Lawrence flipped a switch and became the quarterback everyone thought he could be. His total QBR of 95.4 since Oct. 20 leads the country. He has thrown 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the past five games, with a completion rate above 70 percent in each. Not even Tagovailoa, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Ohio State’s Justin Fields has a five-game streak like Lawrence’s (though LSU’s Joe Burrow, the Heisman favorite, has hit 70 percent in a staggering 12 of 12 games this season). Meanwhile, Clemson has scored more than 50 points in four of those five games and climbed to No. 3 in the playoff rankings.1
One factor in Lawrence’s bounceback appears to be a slight tweak in offensive philosophy: The Tigers are throwing downfield less frequently and much more successfully.2 In the first seven games, 29 percent of Lawrence’s passes (7.9 per game) traveled 15 or more yards in the air. In their last five, that number was only 23 percent (5.8 per game). And on those passes of 15 or more yards downfield, Lawrence’s completion percentage almost doubled (from 36.3 to 65.5) between the first seven games and the last five. He threw six touchdowns and five interceptions on those passes in the first seven games compared to eight touchdowns and zero picks in the last five.
Now, Swinney says, “He’s playing like the best player in the country.” It’s still unlikely that Lawrence will get much consideration for the Heisman Trophy against Burrow, Fields and Hurts, but his resurgence is critical for Clemson, which hardly needed Lawrence much in its march through the mediocre ACC but will need another great performance before long.
In an era of high-scoring offenses, most recent national champions have had to win a shootout at some point, and Clemson is no exception. The 2018 Tigers gave up 35 points to South Carolina and scored 56. The 2016 national champions won by scores of 42-36, 37-34, 42-35 and 35-31. Even LSU, long known for its stingy defense and uninspiring offense, has given up 37 points or more four times this season and required a terrific performance from Burrow each time. But Clemson has not given up more than 20 points in a game this season — every other FBS team except Georgia has done so at least twice — so the Tigers’ offense hasn’t been tested. Lawrence has just 21 pass attempts in the fourth quarter and 18 when his team is behind.
When he finds himself in that situation again, he’ll have to use the deep pass wisely. During this five-game tear, Lawrence is 4-for-4 on passes down the middle totaling 15 yards or more, tallying 148 yards and three touchdowns. In the first quarter Saturday at South Carolina, he dropped a gorgeous throw to Tee Higgins, hitting the open receiver in stride for a 65-yard touchdown, the kind of connection Clemson didn’t find often enough earlier this fall. “I was still having fun,” Lawrence told reporters a couple of weeks ago. “But I do think I was just thinking a little too much about what I needed to do to live up to the expectations.”
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