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When Joe Burrow signed at LSU as a graduate transfer from Ohio State on May 21, 2018, he had thrown exactly 39 passes for the Buckeyes in 2016 and ’17 after redshirting in 2015.
He threw 38 passes two weeks ago in the AFC Championship Game victory over Kansas City to put his Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday (NBC, 6:30 p.m. eastern) at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
Burrow did not arrive at LSU as the Joe Cool of today. When he got to LSU, he had not played regularly since his senior season at Athens High in The Plains, Ohio, in 2014. People may not realize he got off to a much slower start at LSU in 2018 than he did at Cincinnati in 2020 as the first player taken in the NFL Draft the previous spring.
In his LSU debut, Burrow completed just 11 of 24 passes for 140 yards in a 33-17 win over Miami in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 2, 2018. After completing only 10 of 20 for 151 yards and two touchdowns the next week in a 31-0 win over Southeastern Louisiana, Burrow did not enter his and the No. 12 Tigers’ SEC opener at No. 7 Auburn on Sept. 15 with much fanfare.
He was 103rd in the nation and 13th in the SEC in passing yards with 291 and 13th and No. 94 in passing efficiency at 118.3 at the time. He was not off to as good a start as LSU’s previous starter – Purdue transfer Danny Etling.
And if he didn’t get better, there was sophomore Myles Brennan, who had played in six games the previous season and showed flashes of promise. Brennan did have a significantly stronger arm and was the No. 12 pro style quarterback in the nation and No. 212 overall prospect in 2017 by Rivals.com from St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Burrow was the No. 24 dual threat quarterback and not ranked nationally as an overall prospect in 2014-2015.
Burrow struggled at Auburn as he was just 4-of-14 passing from the second quarter through the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter as LSU trailed 21-13.
Then he found it. Burrow threw a 20-yard laser between two defenders on a crossing route and hit wide receiver Derrick Dillon, who sprinted the rest of the way for a 71-yard touchdown with 8:18 to go.
“Joe Burrow gave us a chance to win the football game with that play,” then-LSU coach Ed Orgeron said at the time. “It was a perfect pass.”
LSU went for two, but Burrow’s pass was incomplete, and LSU trailed 21-19.
Burrow got his last chance with 5:38 to play on his own 24-yard line. After an incomplete pass, he faced a third-and-11. He threw incomplete again, but Auburn’s Jeremiah Dinson was called for pass interference against LSU wide receiver Jonathan Giles.
After another incomplete pass and a three-yard rush, Burrow converted a third-and-seven with an eight-yard completion to wide receiver Dee Anderson. And on fourth-and-seven from the Auburn 48, Burrow found tight end Stephen Sullivan for nine yards to Auburn 39.
Burrow threw two more incomplete passes, but pass interference was called again on the second one against Auburn’s Jamal Dean on a throw to Justin Jefferson. LSU took over at the Auburn 24 and kept it on the ground to set up a walk-off field goal by Cole Tracy for the 22-21 win.
“That’s kind of how I’ve been my whole life,” Burrow said after the game. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Burrow finished with 15 completions in 34 attempts for 249 yards and a touchdown and was named SEC offensive player of the week.
“The Auburn game last year was when we saw what Joe Burrow was — a winner,” Orgeron said during the Tigers’ 2019 national championship season in which Burrow won the Heisman as he led the nation in passing throughout the season, finishing with 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns.
“He didn’t play well through most of that game, but when it came time to win the game, he came through,” Orgeron said.
“I really didn’t throw the ball well at Auburn until late in the game,” Burrow said a few days after the Auburn game. “I can throw it better.”
Still, he did not have his first 300-yard passing game until offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger first went to a five-wide receiver set against Rice in the 11th game of the season, and Burrow completed 20 of 28 for 307 yards and two touchdowns. He threw for 394 and four touchdowns in a 40-32 win over Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, and he was off.
Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady became the pass game coordinator the next season and enhanced Ensminger’s spread attack and then some. Burrow threw for 300 yards or more 13 times in the 2019-20 season, including four games for 400 yards passing or more.
“I felt the Auburn game in 2018 really helped my confidence,” Burrow said as the Tigers prepared to play Clemson for the national championship on Jan. 13, 2019. “That’s when I knew I could win in the SEC. That’s where it started.”