CLEMSON, S.C. — Breaking down No. 3 Clemson’s 42-36 win against No. 4 Louisville on Saturday night:
THE BIG PICTURE: It was so long ago that Clemson shed its reputation for folding in big moments, it’s barely a memory anymore. But now, at least for this era of Clemson football, it has been replaced by something else: The ability to dig deep and come up with incredible plays when they are most needed. After blowing a 28-10 lead, then coming back from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the Tigers are very much on track to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division and return to the College Football Playoff. But it took an incredible performance at home to overcome Louisville, which essentially matched the Tigers moment for moment.
The game only ended when Clemson’s defense, exhausted from having faced an onslaught of 99 plays, found its last bit of energy and stopped quarterback Lamar Jackson, who had driven Louisville to the 9-yard line. There, Clemson’s defense stiffened, ending the game when backup cornerback Marcus Edmond forced receiver James Quick to the sideline on a fourth-down pass with 33 seconds left just short of a first down. Up until a few minutes earlier, when Clemson drove 85 yards for a touchdown to take a 42-36 lead with 3:14 remaining, it seemed the Tigers might be destined for heartbreak and Louisville for a win that would effectively have wrapped up them division, having already vanquished the other ACC standard bearer in Florida State.
Instead, Clemson is now in firm control at 5-0 and has shown — once again — comes up with its best when the chips are down. Louisville, by the way, isn’t out of the Playoff chase yet. If anything, this game may end up proving that two ACC teams belong in the CFP when all is said and done.
WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT: The Deshaun Watson vs. Lamar Jackson showdown lived up to its billing and then some. Watson,who has been mediocre throwing the ball this year compared with his form at the end of 2015, dominated the first half. Jackson, who went 10-for-21 for 111 yards with an interception in a frustrating first half while being sacked four times, was electric in the second. He finished with 295 passing yards and 162 rushing on 31 carries.
In the end, though, Watson was clutch when he had to be. Despite three interceptions and struggling for much of the second half while Louisville took an eight-point lead with 7:52 left, he came back with two huge touchdown drives. His fifth touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett, a 31-yard beauty, finished a drive on which he completed 4-of-5 passes for 74 yards. Watson also rushed for 91 yards on 14 carries.
KEY PLAY: With Clemson’s energy level dipping and its chances slipping away, Artavis Scott delivered the kickoff return that might have saved the Tigers’ season. Having just given up a touchdown that put Louisville in front 36-28, Scott burst through the kickoff protection, avoided tackles, caught himself after stumbling near midfield and jetted for a 77-yard return that reignited Memorial Stadium with 7:39 remaining.
Starting at Louisville’s 23-yard line, Clemson needed just two plays to get into the end zone. Though it failed on the two-point conversion, the Tigers had turned momentum in their favor for a final time.
SMART COACHING: With a 21-10 lead, just 31 seconds remaining in the first half and a long way to go just to get in field goal range, roughly 90 percent of coaches — maybe more — would have been content to kneel the ball and go into halftime. But not Dabo Swinney. Putting supreme trust in his offense not to make a crucial mistake in that spot, Clemson rewarded Swinney with a picture perfect 73-yard drive in a matter of 26 seconds to take a 28-10 lead into halftime.
Starting with a 23-yard pass to Artavis Scott, the Tigers got three big chunks of yardage plus a pass interference penalty to put them at the 5-yard line with nine seconds left. On the next play Watson hesitated for a beat, allowing Scott to come free dragging across the end zone and a game-changing score right before the half.