The sophomore quarterback, who was born in Knoxville and lived in Fall Branch before his family relocated to Georgia, led the Tigers to a 29-23 comeback win over Ohio State. It sets up a showdown with No. 1 LSU next Monday in a battle of unbeaten teams nicknamed the Tigers.
It also sets up a marquee quarterback matchup between LSU’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow and Lawrence, who is 25-0 as Clemson’s starter. Lawrence, who said he met Burrow last summer at the Manning camp in Louisiana, talked about what stands out with the Heisman winner.
“I like a lot of things about his game. Just his pocket presence is really good,” Lawrence said during Tuesday’s College Football Playoff teleconference. “His accuracy, obviously, and just how he's pretty mobile, too. He can extend plays and has a really good feel for pressure and doesn't take too many sacks. I like a lot of things about his game.”
There is a lot to like about Lawrence’s game as well.
He became a national celebrity after leading the Tigers to a 44-16 thumping of Alabama in last year’s championship game. Clemson started the preseason as the No. 1 team in the country, but dropped in the polls after winning a close game, 21-20, at North Carolina.
The Tigers, who enter the championship game a 29-game win streak, are the first preseason No. 1 since Alabama in 1966 to go undefeated and drop to No. 3 at the end of the regular season.
It didn’t look promising for the Tigers early in the Fiesta Bowl. Lawrence changed the momentum with a 67-yard touchdown run that cut Ohio State’s lead to 16-14 right before the half. In the second half, he connected with Travis Etienne on touchdown plays of 53 yards and 34 yards, the last one capping off the game-winning drive.
Lawrence finished with 259 passing yards and two touchdowns, and was the team’s leading rusher with 16 carries for 107 yards. He talked about the oddity of having more rushing yards than Etienne, the Tigers’ star back.
“He had close to 100 yards receiving and I had more rushing yards. It was kind of weird,” Lawrence said. “But really, he didn't have as many opportunities to run the ball as much. There was a lot of pull reads and then also just things were opening up for me to have a lot of chances to run the ball.”
Lawrence has plenty of local ties with his mom, Amanda, a Daniel Boone graduate who met his father, Jeremy, when they were students at ETSU. His brother, Chase, was born in Johnson City and two of his uncles work for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.
Others with East Tennessee backgrounds are also making a big impact for Clemson.
Wide receiver Tee Higgins, the MVP of the ACC championship game, was the star on the Oak Ridge basketball team that Patrick Good-led David Crockett beat in the Arby’s Classic and later in the Class AAA sectional round. Amari Rodgers, a Knox Catholic graduate, is the son of Tee Martin, who led Tennessee to the 1998 national championship.
All of them have shown toughness, this season. Rodgers didn’t get to play until the sixth game of the season after suffering an ACL tear in March. Higgins played in the second half of the Fiesta Bowl after getting hurt on Clemson’s first possession of the game. In what Lawrence described as the most physical game of the season, the quarterback was knocked out for one play, but was determined to come back and lead his team past Ohio State.
“They hit me, and I was worried it was my collarbone for a second because I couldn't feel it up there around my shoulder and neck, and my arm just went numb,” Lawrence said. “It was just a really bad stinger. Then I was kind of pissed off because I knew they were over there thinking like, ‘All right, we knocked him out.’
“They had all the momentum, so I was like, all right, ‘I'm just going to pop up, I'm going to run it off.’ I was pissed, too, because I thought we were punting, and then it turns out they called targeting. We got a chance to go back out there and we scored on that drive. I had a different kind of edge when I got up.”