Tigers answer bell against Louisville

By Scott Adamson
Courtesy The Journal

CLEMSON — No. 5 Clemson entered Saturday night’s home showdown against No. 3 Louisville looking for answers.

Could its offense get on track for the first time this season?

Could its defense somehow slow down the Cardinals’ point-a-minute-plus attack?

Could it regain the form that led it tantalizingly close to a national championship in 2015?

Final score: Clemson 42, Louisville 36.

Any more questions?

Things got hairy, for sure, with Dabo Swinney’s team giving up 26 unanswered points in the second half and falling behind by eight midway through the fourth quarter. But when it came time to answer the bell, the defending ACC champions wiped off the blood and got off the mat.

10-3 Page 1B.indd“We want to be 12-0, and you can’t win 12 until you win five,” said Swinney, whose team’s 19-game home winning streak is tops in the nation. “It was a great win. Louisville played their hearts out. I mean, they’ve got some creatures on that team. We stuck it out in the third quarter. We had the right plays, but we fumbled the ball and turned it over. At the end of the day, you either have the heart or you don’t. You have the will to win or you don’t.

“What can you say?”

Kerry Gilstrap/Courier
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson gets the crowd fired up during Saturday’s game against Louisville.

The most important play of the game was Louisville’s last one, one in which the Cardinals needed 12 yards for a first down from the Tiger 14.

They only got 11 and a half, with Marcus Edmond knocking James Quick out of bounds at the 3-yard line, ending Louisville’s drive with 33 seconds to play.

“I was playing deep, saw the ball thrown in the flats, so I just came up and made a play,” Edmond said. “I was just doing my job. I was just worried about him cutting back inside. I was worried about getting juked. If I get juked, it’s a touchdown.”

In racking up 568 yards, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson went 20-for-31 for 306 yards and five TDs, although he turned the ball over five times.

But he also led his team back from the brink, which trumps all.

“I don’t care about the stats — all I care about is the win,” Swinney said. “And Deshaun is a winner. He showed that again tonight.”

Deon Cain led the receiving corps with 98 yards and two touchdowns on four catches, and Wayne Gallman rambled for 110 yards on 16 totes.

The defense was tested to its limit and spent much of the second half worn out thanks to incredible play by Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

But despite allowing the playmaker huge yardage — he rushed for 162 yards and threw for 295 more — Brent Venables’ unit came up big when it had to do it.

Jackson was sacked five times and intercepted once, and Ben Boulware was in on 18 tackles.

“Man, that’s Luke Kuechly-ish,” Swinney said, referring to Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. “I always wanted a guy who could make 18 tackles. He’s just a champion, a winner, a grinder. He loves to prepare. He’s relentless.”

Van Smith was part of 16 tackles, while Edmond was in on 11.

10-3 Page 1B.indd“I started thinking about the (2015) Notre Dame game, and we’re just gonna find a way to win,” Boulware said. “It was sloppy and there’s a lot of things that we can get corrected, but I’m so proud of our guys and the resiliency and maturity. We found a way to win.”

Kerry Gilstrap/Courier
Clemson running back Wayne Gallman bullies his way through a pair of Louisville defenders during their game Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

In the final analysis, the only real negative was five turnovers.

The thriller moved Clemson (5-0, 2-0) to the top of the Atlantic Division and ended Louisville’s (4-1, 2-1) hopes of putting a stranglehold on that side of the league standings.

Trailing 28-10 with 30 minutes to go, the Cardinals needed to make something happen early in the second half, and they did.

Picking off Watson on a tipped ball on Clemson’s opening drive of the third quarter, Louisville set up shop at the home team’s 36.

It took seven plays, but Jackson found Quick wide open in the end zone from eight yards out at 11:20 of the frame.

Carlos Watkins blocked the extra point, but things were tighter at 28-16.

A 21-yard field goal by Blanton Creque at 5:21 of the third cut the Tiger advantage to 28-19, but it was a win for the defense. Venables’ charges denied Jackson and company a TD after they got as close as the 2-yard line.

It was the second time Bobby Petrino’s bunch had gotten inside the 10 but had to settle for a kick.

Jackson lived up to his hype the next time Louisville got the ball, though, moving his team 77 yards in seven plays, capped by his own one-yard glide for six with just 45 seconds remaining in the third.

The kick made it 28-26, and what had once looked like a blowout was now too close to call.

Creque was back on the field with 10:32 left in the contest, and his 28-yard sidewinder added to the visitors’ 19-0 second-half run and lifted UL to a 29-28 lead.

That run grew to 26-0 when Jackson worked his magic again, engineering a 56-yard drive that ended with him darting across the stripe from 11 yards out.

The kick made it 36-28, and now it was the Tigers who needed to rally.

They did in short order, helped by a 77-yard kickoff return by Artavis Scott that put Clemson at the Louisville 23.

On the second play of the series, Watson hit Mike Williams on a 20-yard scoring toss, cutting the deficit to 36-34. The two-point conversion pass was picked off, so the Tigers still had work to do.

10-3 Page 1B.inddWatson and Jordan Leggett did the biggest part, connecting on a 31-yard pitch and catch for a touchdown 3:14 from the finish to swing the lead back to the Tigers, 40-36.

Leggett also reeled in the two-point conversion toss, making it 42-36.

“They came out believing,” Watson said of the rally. “I said, “Let’s be great.’ That’s what we wanted to do. Everyone just mind your Ps and Qs. Everyone stay true to themselves. We drove down and got the touchdown and we made plays. Like Coach Swinney says, ‘Players make plays.’ And that’s what we did.”

The defenses dominated the first quarter, and after the horn sounded on the opening 15 minutes, the teams had evenly split six punts.

The defensive units coached by Venables and Todd Grantham continued to assert themselves in the second stanza, but Jackson finally got in a groove and put Louisville on the board first.

Moving 82 yards on 11 snaps, with Jackson using his arm and legs to spark the drive, the Cardinals scored on Jeremy Smith’s one-yard run over left tackle at the 14:18 mark of the quarter.

The Tigers’ chance to answer finally came thanks to a turnover; Jackson couldn’t handle a high snap, Boulware covered it and the hosts were in business at the Cardinal 45.

After a 12-yard gain on first down, Watson went deep on the next snap, finding Cain on a 33-yard scoring toss.

Greg Huegel split the pipes, and with 7:48 left before the half, it was all tied up.

The next score came quickly after the teams traded fumbles, both coming at the Louisville 39.

After a pass interference penalty put Clemson at the enemy 24, Gallman broke loose on a 24-yard run up the middle. He didn’t slow down until he gave the Memorial Stadium tenants their first lead of the night, that coming with 6:09 to go before the break.

The Tigers then added their third TD in four minutes to take control.

Marching 56 yards in three plays, the Watson-to-Cain combo went for six once more. Their 37-yard hookup at the 3:47 juncture led to a 21-7 cushion and ignited an already boisterous crowd.

Louisville halted the bleeding just before halftime when Creque hit a 26-yard field goal, and Swinney’s team could’ve gone into the locker room confident — and leading by 11.

However, they wanted more and got it.

Running the hurry-up offense to perfection, the team wearing orange traveled 73 yards in 26 seconds, highlighted by a five-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Scott with only five ticks left on the clock.

Huegel split the pipes, and at 28-10 Clemson was in command.

Then things went sideways in the second half, setting up a frantic, thrilling finish.

“It’s a tough loss,” Petrino said. “I’m very proud of our team and the way we competed back in the second half. The guys that were out there were playing really hard and we got back in the game, took the lead and we weren’t able to finish it. It’s a real tough loss. We’ll come back though, and we’ll be all right.”