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How Do You Win a Heisman Trophy?

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Joe Burrow and the path to greatest award

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Georgia vs Louisiana State Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday night in New York City, Joe Burrow will become LSU’s second ever Heisman winner. It’s been 60 long years since Billy Cannon won LSU’s only Heisman award and all it took to bring number two back to Baton Rouge was maybe the greatest season in college football history.

Billy Cannon’s 1959 season has faded, like the grainy clip below, in our collective consciousness. A season where LSU presented a dominant defense led by Cannon, a Sugar Bowl appearance and 9-2-0 record has been compartmentalized down into one play: the punt return on Halloween night to beat Ole Miss.

These Heisman Moments are how we create our folktales. They paint a pretty picture of an entire season of college football. As we get further and further away from them, they help us stay connected to the past.

Joe Burrow is the present. Every pass is still fresh in our minds from the first touchdown pass against Georgia Southern to the last one against Georgia in Atlanta. That touchdown pass against GSU, on a concept that LSU had never run in their history, set off a series of events that led the team to the national semifinals and Joe Burrow to the Heisman trophy.

Right now, it’s hard to tell the story of Joe’s 2019 season in just one play. There were countless Heisman moments from a player that not only broke LSU records, not only broke SEC records, but broke national records.

I’ve whittled my list of moments down to 5 plays that I felt tell the story of Joe Burrow’s incredible season. From the pocket movement to the accuracy to the total grasp of the offense, these 5 plays show everything you need to know about Joe Burrow’s magical 2019 season.

3rd & 17

As it turns out, Texas was not “back” after beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to end the 2018 season, but we were not to know that at the time when LSU marched into Austin for college football’s biggest out of conference game of the season. Up and down the field both offenses went until LSU found themselves in a third and very long, up six points late in the 4th quarter. A punt would give the ball back to a Texas team that hadn’t been stopped in the 2nd half of the game. Not ideal.

When Coach O took over as LSU head coach, in his introductory press conference, he talked about moving LSU to a fully spread offense. Year one saw Matt Canada’s very non-spread offense and year two saw Steve Ensminger continue the LSU tradition of trying to bludgeon people to death so finally in year three, O went out and procured Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to finally give LSU a real modern identity on offense.

This Third and 17 was a tipping point. Would LSU turtle, like it always had, run the ball, punt and play defense or would they take a chance, throw the football and try to pick up a first down? What the Tigers ended up getting was much more than a 1st down.

LSU gets into a 3 by 1 formation and calls 4 verts. Texas responds by playing Cover 0 probably to stop the run if we’re being honest. A lesser quarterback would panic and either, throw a contested fade ball route against an off corner to his boundary receiver or escape through the back of the pocket and lose any ability to throw the ball down the field. Joe is not your average quarterback. Once he sees the Texas safety come up (he’s covering the running back), Joe knows he has Cover 0. We love deep routes over the middle of the field that break inside against Cover 0. That’s what type of route Justin Jefferson is running. The problem is that against off coverage, it will take time for Jefferson to cross his defenders face and get open. Burrow finds the smallest of spots in the pocket to avoid the oncoming pass rush and while climbing on the back of Lloyd Cushenberry, delivers a ball in stride to Jefferson who stiffs the Texas defender and waltzes into the Texas endzone. Ball game, LSU.

Pinpoint Precision

LSU carried the win in Austin to two more big wins against Florida and then Auburn where Burrow continued to play at an elite level. This would, of course, set up another monumental showdown against Alabama. To say the LSU offense has been horrid against the Tide in recent years would be the understatement of the century. This year felt different because LSU’s offense had shown, from the Texas game until then, that it had changed. Still, the Tigers needed to prove it against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Before the game, I felt like we would know very early if LSU would have a chance to beat their arch nemesis and that’s why my second Heisman moment is Burrow’s 1st throw of the contest.

LSU had shown this “switch verts” concept a few weeks prior as Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase for the game clinching touchdown against Florida in Death Valley. I call it switch verts but really this whole design is for Clyde Edwards-Helaire to pick Chase’s defender. Chase will then wheel up the sideline free of his primary defender. The Tide, like the Gators before them, are playing with two high safeties against this play. Against single-high coverage, the free safety is never getting all the way to the sideline from the middle of the field but against two-high, he’s already shading that side of the field. There’s no time for wasted movements from the quarterback. Burrow drops back, finishes his drop already aiming to the sideline and then hitches and throws the ball immediately. He drops it right into Chase’s basket as the safety comes over. Any more time before throwing the ball and the safety makes a play on the ball. A beautiful throw.

Clyde’s Hot Potato

Later in the game, with LSU behind the sticks once again on an important third down, clinging to a small lead, Burrow showed another important aspect to his game: Throwing against the blitz. Teams became so afraid to blitz the LSU offense because of plays like this. This really showed a full command of the offense. In the past, there was no way LSU would release all 5 receivers. When you do that, you have to know where your hot routes are.

Alabama gets a free rusher right up the middle as Burrow looks to the weak side slant-flat combination by Clyde and Chase. The first read is Chase on the slant route because he comes into your vision the fastest. Bama does a great job switching with their defensive backs so now Burrow has to wait a tick longer and find Clyde in the flat. While getting hit, he gets the ball out to Clyde who works his magic down the sideline.

Aggie Killer

As the season progressed, defenses started playing the LSU offense very differently. Teams weren’t just going to run their normal defense and get shredded by Burrow. They weren’t going to blitz and get picked up apart by Burrow throwing hot and the receivers running after the catch (like Chase against Ole Miss). LSU started to get more three-man rushes, spies on Joe Burrow and double coverage on their best receivers. Texas A&M’s game plan was to essentially double Chase as much as possible when Ja’Marr was lined up as the single isolated receiver. It wasn’t a true man to man double team but a “cut” zone coverage where the safety and corner can double certain routes. There weren’t a lot of instances where LSU could get Chase open down the field so when they could Burrow had to hit his best receiver. Late in the first quarter against the Aggies, he did.

LSU conflicted the safety with the route by Jefferson and Burrow uncorked a bomb that Chase caught in stride for a huge touchdown. The reason I love this play is because sometimes the best laid plans are undone by better talent. Burrow showed that he has answers no matter what coverage you play.

The other Georgia play

I understand that the real Heisman moment from this game was the 3rd quarter catch and run to Jefferson where Burrow escaped the same free rusher twice before finding JJ on the run. I’m going to be a contrarian and tell you why the most important play from that game was the first touchdown of the game to Chase.

The Jefferson catch showed off Joe’s incredible and instinctual ability to get around the landmines that present themselves in the pocket but Joe’s calmness to wait around and find a big play when there aren’t any landmines in the pocket. A lot of quarterbacks will just check the ball down to Clyde in the flat when Georgia plays cover 2 man and only rushes 3 with a spy. This allows the defense to breath and get away with allocating so many resources to in coverage. Burrow didn’t let Georgia off the hook for playing this defense. At first, he’s looking for Chase on the corner route but it’s double covered. Next, he’s going to move his head to try to find Marshall on the post. LSU had hit this concept on the post against Mississippi State. This time, Marshall is double covered. No panic. Burrow takes his time against the 3 man rush and eventually directs Chase to an opening before finding him for the opening touchdown of the SEC Championship. Instead of throwing into the flat or forcing a ball into tight coverage, Joe took his time and made another impactful play.

That’s how you win a Heisman.