CLEMSON, S.C. — The first month of the college football season doubled as a highlight tape for the Louisville football program. There was Lamar Jackson leaping over helpless cornerbacks, connecting with streaking receivers and catapulting the Cardinals to unprecedented heights. Few teams have ever streaked into the national consciousness as violently and surprisingly as Louisville. It crashed the top five of the polls, emerged as a College Football Playoff darling and Jackson, its sophomore quarterback, surged to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race.
But the calendar flipped to October, the stakes increased precipitously and No. 3 Louisville submitted an impressive but imperfect performance at No. 5 Clemson on Saturday night. The Tigers outlasted the Cardinals, 42–36, after one final mental mistake on a night filled with them ultimately undid Louisville.
The Cardinals surged back from an 18-point halftime deficit and appeared in control of the game in the second half. But when Clemson shook off its second-half cobwebs to take the lead with 3:14 remaining, Louisville came up just short on its final climactic drive.
Louisville squandered its best chance to solidify itself as a national title contender, showing just how thin the line can be in the highest echelon of college football—rarefied air that Louisville looked uncomfortable with for parts of Saturday night. The Cardinals’ final play typified their night. Facing a fourth-and-seven on the Clemson nine-yard line with less than a minute remaining, Louisville got flagged for its 11th penalty of the game as lineman Kiola Mahoni was whistled for a false start.
Jackson ended up completing a pass to James Quick on fourth-and-12 from the Clemson 14, but Quick was pushed out of bounds a yard short of the first down with 33 seconds left by Clemson’s Marcus Edmond.
“We made it hard,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “At the end of the day you have to respond.”
A party for the ages erupted as the final seconds ticked away. Clemson fans stormed the field and bobbed up and down, turning Death Valley into a mosh pit.
The final hold by the Tigers was set up by junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, who shook off a pedestrian second half and connected with tight end Jordan Leggett on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 3:14 remaining to deliver the final score of this back-and-forth Clemson victory. The Tigers withstood five consecutive Louisville scoring drives to open the half, with Jackson fileting the Clemson defense through the air and pirouetting through the Tigers’ defensive front.
“The culture of our program that’s been established over eight years was big tonight,” Swinney said. “They’d been there.”
So what does it all mean in the end? It could end up as the perfect showcase for a new-era ACC. The league long considered Florida State and a crew of dwarves now has two new premier teams up top. Louisville leaves Death valley a loser but still with a chance at racing back into the playoff hunt. The Cardinals will head to Houston on Nov. 17, a game the Cougars desperately need to win for a spot in the College Football Playoff. That game was scheduled as part of Louisville’s buyout negotiation with the Big East. Who could have ever predicted that it would afford Louisville, and the ACC, a critical late-season showcase if the Cardinals were to take advantage of some chaos and sneak back into the national title race?
Clemson’s final stand solidified its status as the leading contender for the ACC title and a favorite to return to the playoff. It also elevated Watson back to the sport’s highest echelon after he had played unevenly through Clemson’s first four games. The Tigers barely won at Auburn, looked horrific against Troy and appeared to regain their footing in a strong performance last Thursday at Georgia Tech. Watson announced himself as the game’s alpha dog before the opening kickoff, running across the field to wave his warms and dance with a towel to whip the Clemson crowd into a frenzy. He wasn’t perfect Saturday, as he threw an inexcusable pick—one of five Clemson turnovers—behind Mike Williams in the end zone that Louisville’s Jaire Alexander grabbed. But Watson finished with 397 total yards and five touchdowns, drawing about even with Jackson’s 457 yards and three touchdowns.
Louisville may gather itself and re-enter the playoff picture down the road, but on Saturday night it couldn’t stop beating itself. If you ever want to picture a program not ready for prime time, Louisville delivered that in the first half. The Cardinals began the game with consecutive pre-snap false start penalties, and the banana never left the tailpipe. The magnitude of the moment looked too large for Louisville, as the Cardinals sputtered through all the classic mistakes—pre-snap penalties, sloppy turnovers and a costly personal foul. Louisville hadn’t been hit in the mouth yet this season, and when Christian Wilkins and the Clemson defensive line did that early, the Cardinals looked overwhelmed by the opponent and the searing screams of 83,362 in Death Valley. Louisville committed nine penalties for 94 yards in the first half alone and finished with 11 for 104. It tuned the ball over three times and looked lost amid a din so real and visceral it practically cleared your sinuses.
None of Clemson’s first-half scoring drives was longer than four plays, as the Tigers were set up by turnovers and aided by penalties. No moment in the first half epitomized Louisville melting down under the spotlight more than Cardinals receiver Jamari Staples getting a 15-yard personal foul for complaining to the officials. (He was closely guarded by Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley.) Staples barked at the official, and Louisville marched 15 yards backwards to its own 18. A shanked punt by Mason King gave Clemson a short field at the Louisville 44, and it took just three plays for the Tigers to take a 21–7 lead.
Louisville obviously found its footing in the second half, as Jackson ran for a pair of touchdowns, threw for another and led the Cardinals on two field goal drives to open the half. But in the end, Louisville couldn’t completely master the moment. Its final two drives ended with a punt and Quick coming up just short.
The Cardinals showed on Saturday night they are every bit of the national title threat they’d flashed early in the season. But they also learned the painful lesson of how self-inflicted wounds and a wild crowd can keep a program from pushing itself to the top niche of the sport.