NEW ORLEANS – There was time on the clock, but not enough to matter. The end was carved in stone.
Dabo Swinney grabbed Trevor Lawrence's head and comforted his gold-armed, gold-haired quarterback with words of encouragement the coach was unwilling to say.
Lawrence didn't say a word. He was not familiar with what he felt. He would defeat a soccer field for the first time in more than two years, for the first time in 26 games as Clemson's starting quarterback.
"I told him I love him, and it's a great opportunity to lead and respond," said Swinney after losing to the LSU national championships. "He has had so much good. We all have. We have had so many incredible successes, so many great things and he has never lost a game. And he will not lose many. I will tell you in a moment.
"He'll be hard to beat forever because he's special. He's had a hard night. For some reason, he just wasn't having his best night."
A year after Lawrence was the first real newcomer since 1985 to lead his team to a national title – Nick Saban and Alabama for 347 yards and three touchdowns – Heisman's winner Joe became the putative top tip in the 2021 NFL draft significantly outperformed Burrow threw for 463 yards and five touchdowns, while Lawrence completed 18 of 37 passes for 234 yards without touchdowns and fiddling.
"It sucks," said Lawrence. "A moment like this happens and, man, it sucks."
Lawrence's first loss in high school playoffs since November 17, 2017 included 13 falls – his previous career high was five – that were not more than one quarterback in a game this season.
"I wasn't exactly sure," said Lawrence after Clemson's first loss in 30 games. "Didn't get the ball where it needed to be, didn't give my boys a chance enough, and that's what really matters. The LSU did a good job, but I just didn't play well enough to win many missed pieces by me, many recipients missed. It just wasn't my night. "
Lawrence's experience seemed crucial early on. The runner-up scored the first goal of the game in a 1-yard touchdown and brought the LSU 17: 7 into the biggest hole of the season in the second quarter.
In the last 43 minutes, Clemson scored only once. Lawrence lost the ball on his last touch. Swinney came up to him on the sidelines.
"I wouldn't trade this guy for anyone," said Swinney. "I know exactly how he will respond. It's easy when everything is good. So I just told him that I'm proud of him and his struggle, his grit, his will and hey, that's the ball. Listen You, he gave everything he had. "
Lawrence will be a Heisman favorite next fall, leading what is likely to be the best-placed team to compete next season. He has a chance of a second ring, a chance to achieve as much as any other player ever.
"We'll be fine," said Lawrence. "We will come back. We have done some great things and we certainly have a lot more ahead of us."
There it is likely. But the perfection has passed.