What a game in Death Valley! The highly anticipated and historic ACC showdown lived up to all of the superfluous adjectives and hyperbole, treating the entire nation to an instant classic to cap a great college football weekend. Without further adieu, here are the Tigers’ grades for the Louisville win.
I posted this during the live game thread, but I want to reiterate it here because of the significance: the offense scored its first 5 touchdowns in a total of 12 plays and two and a half minutes. 2:28, to be exact. WOW! I’m almost certain that has to be a national record. I doubt even Oregon in its hay day put up that many touchdown drives under one minute in a single game. To put that in perspective, the Tigers’ sixth and final touchdown drive consumed 2:57—more than the first five combined—and even that is a relatively fast touchdown drive. Most importantly, the offense stepped up in the 4th quarter when they had to score points and got it done. I remember looking up at the scoreboard after Lamar Jackson’s touchdown run put the Cards up 8 points, and there were nearly 8 minutes left in the game. I thought to myself, “This Clemson offense scored 5 touchdowns in two and a half minutes. Surely they can at least tie the game in 8 minutes!” Lo and behold, Artavis Scott comes up with the big kick return, and two plays and 34 seconds later, the Tigers are in the end zone again! It is scary, folks, how explosive this offense is. We finally got a glimpse of that on Saturday night against a quality defense. This was a top-20 defense coming into the game, allowing just a 22% conversion rate on 3rd down coming into the game. Yet the Tigers were able to score repeatedly in the blink of an eye. In fact, their explosiveness on offense was a detriment to the defense, and I’ll elaborate on that in a minute.
Watson didn’t play a perfect game by any means, but it was still a tremendous performance on a big-time, pressure-packed stage. He was 20-31 for 305 yards passing, with 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. One of those picks was not his fault because Ray-Ray dropped a perfect pass that deflected into the defender’s arms. Watson had his best game running the ball, with 91 yards on 6.5 yards per carry. The pass across his body to Leggett on the opposite hash was a thing of beauty. However, Watson is still missing some throws that he seemed to make with his eyes closed last season. There was the interception in the end zone, where he threw it behind an open Mike Williams. Last season, that’s a touchdown. There was also the one he under-threw to Artavis Scott, who had a couple steps on the defender for a sure touchdown. Fortunately, that yielded a pass interference, and Gallman ran for a touchdown on the next play, but that’s another one Watson would just not have missed last season. Then there was the terrible decision on the second interception when he threw into tight coverage. Again, it was a brilliant performance by most quarterbacks’ standards, but compared to the Watson who should have won the Heisman last season, we are still left wanting more.
Gallman also had his best game running the ball. 110 yards and a touchdown on 6.9 yards per carry, and it was his birthday! Gallman ran with the tenacity and refusal to go down mentality that we were used to seeing last season. You could tell how much he wanted this win!
The wide receivers did a great job for the most part—especially Deon Cain and Mike Williams. Cain had the best game of his career with the two big touchdown catches in the first half and the huge 3rd down reception in the 4th quarter that he had to flip around and catch behind his body. That set up the game-winning touchdown by Leggett on the next play. Trevion Thompson also had a huge diving catch on 2nd and 10 in the 4th quarter. Ironically, Ray-Ray had led the team in receptions and yards in the previous 3 games, but he didn’t have a single catch on Saturday night and had the drop that led to the interception. That’s a testament, though, to the tremendous depth of this WRU corps.
Finally, how about Jordan Leggett! Before the Georgia Tech game, I asked Dabo about Leggett’s slow start catching the ball. The Mackey Award Finalist only had one catch in the first three games. Dabo’s response was that there were several reasons, but primarily things just hadn’t worked out yet. However, he said that Leggett was too good a player and that he would have plenty of big plays by the end of the season. Sure enough, he made the big touchdown catch with 4 seconds left in the half in Atlanta and had 4 more big catches against Louisville. He did have the fumble inside the Louisville 10 that probably cost them 7 points, but he redeemed himself with the game-winning touchdown and 2-point conversion catches. By the way, that game-winning TD catch also set a new Clemson record for touchdowns by a tight end. Great to have ‘ole Leggett back as a big-time weapon!
The offense put up 507 yards and had great balance, with 306 yards passing and 201 yards rushing. They were 4 of 9 on 3rd down—amazing they only had 9 third downs in the entire game—but were only 2 of 4 in the red zone because of the turnovers. The offensive line was outstanding in both the run game and the passing game, once again allowing no sacks. Louisville came into the game with 15 sacks on the season.
All of the positives notwithstanding, 5 turnovers cannot be overlooked. It is nothing short of miraculous that the Tigers were able to beat a team of Louisville’s caliber with that many turnovers. Alabama had 5 turnovers at home against Ole Miss last season and lost. 2 of the Tigers’ turnovers occurred inside the Louisville 10 yard line—almost certainly costing them 14 points—and another set up a Louisville score. The Tigers could have and should have won that game by 20 points or more!
While this may seem like a high grade for a defense that allowed 36 points and 568 total yards, it has to be put into perspective. This was the #1 offense in the nation in both total yards and scoring. They were averaging 682 yards per game and 63.5 points per game coming in! They shredded FSU for 63 points. They have the most elusive player in college football since Johnny Manziel at quarterback. Despite all of that, the defense managed to hold Louisville to just 10 points and 134 yards in the first half! Louisville came into the game averaging 434 yards in the first half. The defense also had 3 sacks and 7 tackles-for-loss in that first half, matching the number of TFL’s Louisville had allowed for the entire season coming in! It was an incredible first half performance, and followed up right where they left off with a shutout against SC State and a sensational 7-point, 124-yard performance on the road in Atlanta. Just think what this defense will be capable of when Austin Bryant returns! Things relented a little bit in the second half, but consider how long the defense was on the field. Because of the lighting-quick pace at which the Clemson offense was scoring, the defense was on the field for almost 19 of the 30 minutes and a total of 50 plays in the half! They were on the field for an incredible 99 plays in the game, and they simply did not have enough gas to be able to contain the most electric player in college football to that excess. However, as exhausted as they had to be in the waning seconds of the 4th quarter, the D found a way to come up with the stop they had to have and save the game—just like the only other two meetings between the Tigers and Cardinals, and just like the Notre Dame game last season. Marcus Edmond, who worked his tail off to be named the starter entering August camp and then had to spend the last two months rehabbing from injury, made one of the plays of the season on 4th and 12 to preserve the Clemson victory and keep the Tigers’ ACC Championship and National Championship hopes alive! Ben Boulware was out of his mind. 18 tackles, a sack, 3 tackles-for-loss and a fumble recovery! That was one of the all-time greatest defensive performances by a Tiger in a big game. Jadar Johnson recorded his team-high 3rd interception on the season and 7th in his career.
The defense was able to force 3 turnovers in all, which was crucial due to the 5 turnovers committed by the offense. They had 5 sacks and 10 TFL’s in the game, and they stiffened in the red zone, allowing just 4 touchdowns in 8 trips.
Albert Huggins is starting to emerge as the dominant player on the interior that we expected, recording 2 sacks in the game, and Clelin Ferrell added 2 more sacks to his resume as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Special teams played an integral part in the first two meetings between these two programs. In 2014, Adam Humphries returned a punt for a touchdown—the last time that has been done by the Tigers—and last season Louisville had a 100-yard kickoff return TD to get itself back in the game and have a chance to win. Fortunately, the Tigers’ kickoff coverage continued its excellent play on Saturday, allowing only 15.3 yards per return on just 3 returns. The Cardinals only had 15 yards on 2 punt returns. They were one of the top teams in the nation in the return game coming in, but it was a non-factor for them on Saturday. In a very similar situation after the Tigers re-gained the lead in the 4th quarter, with the same player who had the 100-yard TD return for Louisville last season, Huegel forced one of his 3 touchbacks, preventing a déjà vu moment.
Teasdall averaged 42.8 yards on his 5 punts and landed 3 inside the 20, including one of the best punts in years that Tankersley was able to down within inches of the goal line. Huegel was perfect on his PAT’s, and big Carlos Watkins was able to block one of theirs.
Last but not least, Artavis Scott had one of the plays of the game with his 77-yard 4th quarter kickoff return. That completely swung momentum back in the Tigers’ favor after falling behind 8 points and sent the crowd into a frenzy!
I would be remiss if I didn’t grade Saturday’s crowd because it was one of the best in Death Valley history. It was like a living, breathing entity, and I would put the noise level at certain times right up there with the 2005 sack against Miami and the 2007 Matt Ryan Boston College game for the division title. The obvious difference between this game and those two being that the Tigers won! The game began with back-to-back offensive line penalties as a direct result of the crowd—something you may never see again. There is no question that the crowd played a vital role in this victory, and it’s a big reason Clemson now holds the nation’s longest active home win streak at 19 games!
Another short week coming up, and the Tigers will have to take care of business at Boston College on Friday night. They have passed the first of three big obstacles en route to a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff and regained a lot of national respect that had diminished a little after the first two games of the season. They served notice to Louisville and the ACC that they are the defending champs and still king of the hill. Boston College has never been an easy place to play, but the Tigers have won 43 consecutive games against unranked opponents. Almost as impressive, they are now 14-2 in their last 16 games decided by a touchdown or less. One of the losses was overtime at FSU—a game Watson didn’t start that the Tigers should have won easily—and the other was the National Championship loss to Alabama! This was the Tigers' third win by exactly 6 points this season. 5-0 and 10 to go….