By Rick Sarro
For the sake of brevity, I will go back as far as last spring in Columbus, Ohio.
The Ohio State Buckeyes’ spring game had just concluded, and it was quite apparent that Dewayne Haskins, a surefire Top 10 pick in the NFL Draft, had vaulted past Joe Burrow to become the starting quarterback for now-retired head coach Urban Meyer.
The young Burrow, who would soon graduate early with two years of playing eligibility remaining, decided there were options other than sitting on the bench at his beloved Ohio State. The decision came quickly. Burrow was leaving Columbus with a short list of schools.
LSU was one of them.
College football’s cottage industry of FBS transfers was abuzz with talk of Burrow and just where he might land. Louisiana and its rabid LSU fans from the Texas border, north to Red River over to the duck’s flyover of Monroe, across the I-10 corridor of Acadiana and the epicenter of Baton Rouge, down to the Crescent City and through the swamps and bayous of the coast began googling anything to do with Ohio football and this quarterback named Joe Burrow.
LSU fans, so starved for a quarterback to pin their hopes on, watched Burrow’s every move and dissected his every word for any hint where he would ultimately sign. There were unsubstantiated rumors that Tiger fans had arranged drones to keep eyes on Burrow’s every move and a Go Fund Me account was set up to help with any moving expenses … NCAA be damned.
None of that was true, of course. But I’m sure it all came up in conversation somewhere along Nicholson Drive.
Burrow and his father Jimmy, a veteran defensive coordinator at Ohio with more than 30 years of coaching experience and a former NFL and CFL player, appeared to narrow it down to LSU, Cincinnati and North Carolina.
Cincinnati was their first stop. It was a nice visit as far as anyone could tell. But Cincinnati is not a Power Five program, and surely the Burrow family had higher aspirations for Joe, who was poised to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback before a broken hand in 2017 set him back.
LSU had already completed its spring game, and coach Ed Orgeron wasn’t overwhelmed by the play of his three quarterbacks. He wisely chose not to commit to anyone for the starting job going into August camp.
It was still uncertain who would fill LSU’s quarterback position. Joe and his dad Jimmy certainly were told that when Orgeron laid out the red carpet for their trip to Baton Rouge last May. A planned two hour meeting reportedly turned into a five-hour discussion on the Tiger’s offense and how Joe would fit in.
Soon thereafter, any other visits were scratched and Burrow announced he was taking his considerable talents south to Baton Rouge, to LSU and the SEC West, to compete against the best in the country — and that included defending national champion Alabama.
My guess is LSU fans across the state, and, yes, country, rejoiced and raised a glass or two in celebration, hoping that the Tigers’ search for a bona fide No. 1 quarterback was over — for two years at least.
I bit early and hard on the Burrow hype.
I said on the TV show and wrote in this column that Burrow was the LSU starting quarterback despite not having called a play or thrown a pass for the Tigers.
It didn’t matter to me, because I knew deep down Burrow was better than anyone on campus, including former Mississippi prep star and Elite 11 quarterback Myles Brennan, junior Justin McMillian and young dual threat Lowell Narcisse.
I only saw clips from Burrow’s limited play for the Buckeyes (29 of 39 passes for 287 yards and only two touchdowns, along with 53 yards rushing as a backup to J.T. Barrett).
Here is what I knew and surmised. Burrow, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds, was bigger and stronger than the three other QBs. He was a former Mr. Ohio Football in a high school football crazed state. Ohio practically invented the game, and Canton is home to the NFL Hall of Fame. That has to count for something, right?
He was scouted, evaluated and signed by Urban Meyer, a three time National Champion and 1-A behind Nick Saban as college football’s best coach. Meyer had been stockpiling superior quarterback talent for years with Barrett, Cardale Jones, Burrow and the little known Dewayne Haskins.
Burrow was the son of a coach — and not just any coach: a coach who was a former Nebraska defensive back who played some pro ball and spent 30-plus years coaching defenses in high school and college. Young Joe knew how to recognize and break down defensive formations.
If Burrow was in the quarterback room at Ohio State, even as a back-up, then he was surely better than anyone LSU had under center.
Was my early opinion of Burrow blind faith or an accurate appraisal of LSU’s quarterback talent? A little of both — but mainly a belief in Burrow.
Orgeron and new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger were convinced too. Early in August camp, Burrow was named the starter. Brennan slid quietly to No. 2, and McMillian and Narcisse both transferred.
Burrow proved his worth and football acumen early in the season opener against highly ranked Miami when he recognized a defensive formation and changed the play at the line to a run call for Nick Brossette; 50 yards later, LSU had a first quarter 7-0 lead en route to an upset win over the Hurricanes that set the tone for the entire year.
Over the surprising 5-0 start, Burrow wasn’t flashy and didn’t put up 300-yard passing games. He wasn’t super accurate, and at times he held the ball too long. But he was making plays at the right time with his arm and legs and winning games.
No one was concerned with style points, and rightfully so. Burrow wasn’t going to be in the running for the all SEC team or All America honors. He was doing what was expected of him. Run the offense, make solid decisions, protect the ball (go through the first four games without a turnover), become a team leader and win games.
Two late-game clutch scoring drives as time expired to beat Auburn 22-21 on a Cole Tracy field goal put what Burrow does best on full display. He performs under pressure, keeps his cool, makes the big plays when they’re most needed and puts the team in a position to win.
There was a rough outing at Florida, where the offensive line allowed free and fast pathways for harassing Burrow for the entire game. The defense forced an interception, a fumble and scoop for a score that gave the Gators the win.
After six games, and face-offs against three of the country’s Top 15 defenses, coach Orgeron knew what he had in Burrow and had a growing faith in his quarterback.
“[He’s] a leader and very tough,” Orgeron said after the Florida loss. “He’s black and blue today. Doesn’t complain a bit. Smart. Makes great decisions. But he’s not Superman. Nobody is. Can run the football and throw the football. I think he’s playing good for us. There’s a lot of things that he can get better at, but we need to help him out too.”
One week later, Burrow led the Tigers to the season’s seminal victory over No. 2 Georgia. His status was cemented, but his book of heroics had more chapters to come.
On Nov. 24 at College Station versus Texas A&M it was 74-72 after an NCAA-record-tying seven overtime periods. It was the most combined points in college football history and arguably the most controversial officiating in NCAA history. The first part is fact, the second is my opinion. But it’s an opinion held by many who witnessed the referees’ numerous blown calls.
Remember Orgeron’s comment that Burrow wasn’t Superman. Well, against the Aggies, I thought I caught a glimpse of a red cape peeking out from under his No. 9 jersey. He had his best overall game of the season so far, completing 25 of 38 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Here’s where the superhero comes into play: Burrow tacked on 29 carries for 100 yards and scored three touchdowns on the ground.
Joe B. accounted for nearly 75 percent of LSU’s total offensive production against the Aggies.
As the game proceeded from one overtime to the next, and then to multiple extra periods Burrow refused to fold. He kept making plays and kept giving the Tigers chances to win a mind-boggling game that would eventually turn on a referee’s shocking call on a phantom pass interference penalty on Greedy Williams, the nation’s best cover cornerback.
You know what happened next.
LSU would be awarded a New Year’s Day bowl game despite the loss. That put Burrow in the national spotlight again against chest-thumping, unbeaten Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl.
The SEC and the Power Five as a whole were looking to Burrow and the Tigers to put the Knights in their place, which was not in the national championship conversation, in spite of their second straight 12-0 record.
Playing with a chip on their shoulders the size of Epcot, UCF got an early chance to set the physical tone of the game early and took it. Burrow threw an ill-advised pass near the goal line that was picked off at the 7-yard line. This one had Pick Six written all over it. Burrow, with little chance of catching the speedy defender, gave chase anyway.
The next few seconds will go down in LSU lore.
Hulky, 290-pound defensive tackle Joey Connors saw his opportunity and blindsided Burrow with a high shoulder and chest hit that put Burrow’s body and legs parallel to the ground; he then went straight down, with his head ricocheting off the turf.
Burrow went to all fours and was helped from the field. A concussion and bruised ribs and a probable trip to the locker room for X-rays and treatment came to my mind.
The hit came from a legal angle, but was still a brutal cheap shot on a defenseless player from an opponent who felt disrespected for whatever convoluted reason. Later in the second half Burrow suffered another vicious helmet to the head hit that was deemed targeting.
Dazed, bloodied and bruised Burrow went to the sideline, saying he’d only had the wind knocked out of him. Unbelievably, he didn’t miss a snap for the rest of the game, and threw three of his four touchdowns in the first half after the blind side hit, leading the Tigers to a 40-32 victory.
The 10-3 overall record; a Fiesta Bowl triumph; his 2,894 yards passing with 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions; his 133 quarterback rating; are the hard, quantifiable facts surrounding Burrow’s season as a Tiger.
But the immeasurable intangibles are what made Burrow so special and integral to LSU’s surprising success against seven ranked opponents and with one of the most difficult schedules in the country.
His toughness was on display every game and can’t be denied.
His leadership on and off the field was a bedrock to the team.
His will and competitiveness were unmatched.
Given those merits, and his continued improvement throughout his first season as a starting college quarterback, I would put Burrow’s performance above those of Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham (who declared for the NFL Draft), Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Vandy’s Kyle Shurmur, to name some of the SEC’s top tier quarterbacks.
Call me crazy, but I think Burrow will be the second best quarterback in the SEC in 2019, ranking behind only Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
Burrow — the former star of Ohio prep football, the Buckeye’s heir apparent quarterback and a coach’s son — traveled a long road from Columbus to Baton Rouge to finally find his football home and a team he can call his own.
Orgeron talks about “grit” all the time when he’s discussing players’ physical and mental make-up.
If Coach O had a “True Grit” award for the 2018 season, it would go to Joe Burrow.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.