CLEMSON, S.C. — Ben Boulware wept when it ended. His bushy beard technically contains no gray, but he’s one of Clemson’s true graybeards, a player who has seen a lot and felt a lot.
The senior linebacker is no stranger to big stages and worthy opponents.
But the stress of 99 plays landed on him. The stress of Lamar Jackson, a human pinball, hit him like an emotional haymaker. Imagine going from logging 57 plays against Georgia Tech to nearly twice as many against Louisville.
“I’m stressed, but I’m stressed in a good way because I’m so prepared mentally,” Boulware said. “I’m stressed because I know how big of a game it is, but I’m comfortable in my game. So I’m stressed but comfortable, if that even makes sense.”
It does. The ability to endure one but maintain the other separates champions from also-rans. Who flinches under the brightest of lights? It used to be the guys in orange. They did it so often that they popularized a putdown in college football’s lexicon, a word never to be mentioned in Death Valley again.
Fifth-ranked Clemson wins games like Saturday’s because it has won them before. Third-ranked Louisville fell short in part because it flinched one too many times, committing 11 penalties, opening the game with two false starts and drawing another at the worst possible time, on a fourth-and-7 from the Clemson 9-yard line with 40 seconds left.
Amid a sea of orange revelers on the field following the 42-36 triumph over Louisville, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott immediately brought up last year’s win against Notre Dame.
The two contests seemingly couldn’t be more different. One took place in a deluge; the other in perfect conditions. Clemson and Notre Dame combined for 46 points; Clemson and Louisville surpassed that total midway through the third quarter Saturday. Clemson never trailed Notre Dame; it twice erased deficits to Louisville, including one in the closing minutes.
But the dramatic arc, and the outcome, felt familiar to the Tigers.
“Eerily similar,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
The Notre Dame win propelled Clemson to an undefeated regular season, an ACC championship and a playoff spot. The Louisville win could chart a similar path, especially if Clemson outlasts suddenly reeling Florida State in Tallahassee on Oct. 29.
Clemson brought its guts to Death Valley again, but it also brought plenty of reference points — mostly good but a few bad, including the loss to Alabama in the national title game — that made the difference in a wild, wonderful, sloppy, scintillating game.
“There’s not a team meeting coach [Dabo] Swinney’s had that he doesn’t bring two signs,” Scott said. “The first sign he brings in to the team meeting for the last eight years is ‘Believe,’ a big orange ‘Believe’ sign. And the other sign is ‘I can’t do it’ with a line through the ‘T.’ It’s every day, instilling that belief with the group.
“And winning games like this.”
Swinney, now 10-5 against top-10 opponents, still gets slightly irked by suggestions that being clutch is a new trait for his program. He cites Clemson’s streak of consecutive 10-win seasons since 2011, and its home win streak, now the nation’s longest at 19 after Florida State’s defeat Saturday. Most Tigers players don’t know what its like to lose at home.
So why not rally after withstanding a 17-point Louisville barrage in the third and early fourth quarter? Why not get contributions from familiar sources (Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, Boulware) but also new ones, like cornerback Marcus Edmond, a scout team player as recently as last year who stopped Louisville’s James Quick just shy of the marker on fourth-and-12 from the Clemson 14-yard line?
“Why not win 119 in a row?” Swinney said. “Why not? Let’s just keep doing what we do around here. I don’t think there’s any question that the culture of our program that’s been established the last eight years was big tonight.
“Because they’ve been there.”
Clemson can get back “there,” the national title game, if it can build on Saturday’s flawed but gritty performance. Last week, Elliott challenged the offense to define its identity rather than be defined by the outside world, which raised an eyebrow at Clemson’s choppy run game and Watson’s mortal statistics.
The Tigers proceeded to spark their run game behind Gallman and Watson, who combined for 201 yards on 30 carries, both averaging at least 6.5 yards per rush. They showcased their depth in the passing game as Deon Cain (four catches, 98 yards) and tight end Jordan Leggett (three catches, 70 yards) both had big contributions on a night when Ray-Ray McCloud was quiet.
“Last year was the standard, and I don’t know if that can be duplicated, 100 straight games over 500 yards,” Elliott said. “But we have an opportunity to be a very explosive offensive. What’s our identity going to be? We found out a little bit about that tonight.
“We can be an offense that’s very similar to last year, but it may not happen the same way.”
Clemson isn’t shy about its goals.
“We’re trying to go undefeated,” Edmond said.
If the Tigers can take down Florida State, which continues to battle its defensive demons, another perfect regular season seems more than reasonable. Pittsburgh’s offense will provide a nice test Nov. 12, and North Carolina or Miami could challenge the Tigers in the ACC title game, but Clemson probably has cleared its biggest hurdle in Louisville and Jackson, who overcame early errors to show why he became the face of college football in September.
The Cardinals’ star finished with 295 pass yards, 162 rush yards and three touchdowns.
“Best player I’ve ever played against in my entire life,” Boulware said. “But we found a way to win.”
Barefoot in the tunnel outside Clemson’s locker room, Boulware was spent. Practice looms later Sunday, and a short week of preparation before a trip to Boston College.
“As a competitor, you want to be in as stressful an environment as possible,” Boulware said.
Stressed but comfortable. It might not be as catchy or hashtaggable as Bring Your Own Guts, but for this Clemson team, it’ll do.