The day began, literally, with a bang. A group of Silver Spurs from the University of Texas draped a Joe Burrow LSU jersey over Smokey the Cannon, and ESPN’s College GameDay cameras zoomed in. The crowd booed. The camera zoomed out, the Spurs lit the cannon, and now there was a hole blown straight through the number nine. The crowd screamed in delight.
“To be completely honest,” Hunter McKenna, one of the Silver Spurs on cannon duty that day, said earlier this week, “we didn’t even know it was Joe Burrow’s jersey.” They ordered the first LSU jersey they could find online. It just so happened to belong to the player who would almost single-handedly defeat Texas that night and then go on to have arguably the greatest college football season of all time.
This weekend, Burrow will lead his Cincinnati Bengals to one of the more improbable Super Bowl berths in recent history. In just his second year in the NFL, he’s already drawing comparisons to Tom Brady. In 2019, Burrow won the Heisman and became a Louisiana folk hero, throwing for more than 5,600 yards and sixty touchdowns en route to a national championship in what ESPN’s Mike Greenberg called “the greatest season ever—and it isn’t especially close.”
You will almost certainly hear similar hyperbole from NBC’s broadcasters when they describe Burrow on Sunday. They will use words like “shocking” and “meteoric” to describe his ascent to the NFL’s zenith. At some point, color commentator Cris Collinsworth, voice trembling in disbelief, will turn to Al Michaels and say something like, “What this guy is doing is incredible!” And Michaels will say, “Do you believe in miracles? Thanks to Joe Burrow . . . yes!”
But before all the praise, Burrow was a quarterback who, at the beginning of LSU’s September 2019 game against Texas, received a far more subdued introduction from ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit: “Another guy who had some experience last year.” You could almost hear the yawn in his voice. By the end of the night, Burrow would become college football’s biggest star, and some of the opening chapters of his legend would be written under the lights in Austin, on a long third down that changed two programs forever.
LSU and Texas aren’t traditional rivals—they hadn’t met in the regular season since 1954—but it sure felt like a rivalry during week two of the 2019 campaign. Texas, returning much of the team that upset Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, was ranked ninth. LSU was sixth. During warm-ups, LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson, a Houston native, went to the Longhorns sideline and drank from their water supply, prompting a scuffle. Meanwhile, the Silver Spurs and Smokey the Cannon got a police escort to Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium after making an appearance at a tailgate two miles away—at the Governor’s Mansion. Matthew McConaughey gave the Horns a pregame speech (the gist, according to offensive lineman Tope Imade, was “Go get the Tigers!”), while LSU coach Ed Orgeron complained that the visiting locker room didn’t have functioning air conditioning (a claim UT denied).
Of all the story lines entering the matchup, Joe Burrow’s barely registered. Texas head coach Tom Herman had recruited Burrow to Ohio State years earlier, when Herman was working as the offensive coordinator in Columbus, but the quarterback was buried in the Buckeyes’ depth chart. Burrow transferred to LSU in 2018, where he won the starting role without turning many heads. “All of 2018, it really seemed like Joe Burrow was this game manager,” recalled Brooks Kubena, a UT graduate who covered the Tigers from 2018 to 2020 for the Baton Rouge Advocate. Against Alabama that season, Burrow’s team was shut out 29–0. But in the off-season, LSU reengineered its offense, hiring wunderkind Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints as passing game coordinator. The Tigers adopted a modern spread offense, and when Burrow claimed before the 2019 season that they might average forty points a game, LSU fans were dubious, to say the least.
“LSU had a quarterback issue for almost a decade at that point,” Kubena said, “and they could not score forty if they tried.” Burrow wasn’t a particular focus in the Longhorns’ pregame preparation, either. “We acknowledged that the quarterback’s play was pretty good, but the stress for our corners and safeties was their receivers,” Imade said.
Among the sellout crowd that night was Burrow’s father, Jim, whom ESPN camera operators spotted just before kickoff, flashing a “horns down” sign. Herbstreit set the stage for viewers following at home: “LSU in the past . . . they’ve won games with defense, special teams, not losing on offense. Tonight, they’re gonna start this new offense of getting their athletes in space and trying to attack.” But at first, the game didn’t seem like an offensive shoot-out. The Longhorns led 7–3 early in the second quarter, and Burrow had thrown an interception while the Horns had dropped a sure touchdown. By the end of the first half, though, Burrow was moving the ball at will, and LSU strung together three consecutive scoring drives in the second quarter. With one minute left in the half, Burrow took the Tigers 58 yards down the field in just three plays to score a touchdown and increase LSU’s lead to 20–7. LSU seemed poised to blow the game open after halftime.
The Longhorns, willed ahead by their own quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, fought back, trading scores. “[These are] two of the best quarterbacks in the country going toe-to-toe,” Herbstreit gushed. With four minutes left in the game, the Tigers got the ball back, up 37–31. Conventional wisdom suggested that the wise strategy would be to run the ball, limiting the risk of a turnover and allowing the clock to run. Orgeron asked his offensive coordinator, Steve Ensminger, if he wanted to slow the tempo and play it safe. Ensminger had other plans. “No, we’re going to pass the ball,” Orgeron says he told him. “We’re gonna go down there and score.”
Burrow completed his first throw for an eleven-yard gain. He completed another, leading the Tigers down the field, but on a second down near midfield, a blitzing Longhorns safety sacked Burrow for a seven-yard loss. It was third and seventeen on the LSU 39. A stop would give Texas and Ehlinger the ball with a chance to take the lead. Two and a half minutes remained. “We couldn’t stop them,” Orgeron said after the game. Everyone watching knew the stakes. “One thousand percent, it was the loudest I ever heard DKR,” McKenna said.
Texas blitzed, and Burrow knew it was coming. He stepped forward in the pocket and, balancing on one foot while leaning against an offensive lineman, delivered a dart to receiver Justin Jefferson, streaking across the field. Jefferson scampered all the way to the end zone. “That was the dagger out of a year of daggers,” Kubena recalled. “If you were going to put together a highlight reel of unbelievable plays that describe the Joe Burrow experience in 2019, that’s the first one you show. That set everything from there.”
ESPN’s cameras found Burrow on the sideline, waving goodbye to the Longhorns fans. He had thrown for 471 yards and four touchdowns. “I played against three Heisman winners: Joe Burrow, Baker Mayfield, and Kyler Murray,” Imade said this week. “And Joe Burrow was just an assassin.”
The Horns managed to score once more, but there wasn’t enough time to complete a comeback. The final score was 45–38. “This is 2019 LSU!” said Herbstreit on the broadcast, now a believer. “This is Joe Burrow!” LSU would win the national championship that season; Texas would lose four more games after the LSU defeat and eventually decide to fire Herman a year later. “After LSU,” Imade recalled, “things just weren’t the same.”
For Tigers fans, third and seventeen was the beginning of a storybook. For the Longhorns, it’s one of the many what-ifs that have haunted UT football since Vince Young scurried into the end zone against USC in 2006: What if Blake Gideon had stopped Michael Crabtree in 2008? What if Colt McCoy had stayed healthy against Alabama in 2010? What if Burrow hadn’t completed that third and long, and Texas had gotten a chance to pull ahead? “It’s crazy how one game can be the detriment or success of your season,” Imade said.
It’s crazy, too, how one player can alter the fate of two programs. “He would pull plays like that third and seventeen out of the hat and just dazzle everyone who watched,” Kubena said. “That was the first experience.”
It wasn’t the last, and there will surely be more. So no matter the halftime score on Sunday, it’s never wise to doubt Joe Burrow. Just remember what he did that night against the Longhorns. There might be something magical about this guy.