LOUISVILLE — The members of the Clemson defense had heard all week about the uncanny playmaking ability of Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who had performed magnificently last year in nearly engineering an upset of the Tigers.
The Clemson defensive line, in particular, took exception to the suggestion that Jackson was poised to elevate his Heisman candidacy this season with another virtuoso showing, this time in the friendly confines of Cardinal Stadium and in front of a national television audience.
The Tigers instead had Jackson back-peddling and scrambling far more often than he’s accustomed during a 47-21 statement win Saturday night that puts No. 3 Clemson in early position for a spot in the NCAA playoff and a run at a second straight national championship.
“We had two goals tonight. One was to get the job done, and the second was to leave no doubt,” said Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney. “We felt like we left a little doubt the past couple years. Last year against these guys we turned it over five times. Came here a couple years ago and gave up a kick return to the house. We just wanted to play good, sound, complementary football tonight, and we did that in all three phases.”
Clemson (3-0) also gained the inside track on winning the competitive ACC Atlantic Division. The No. 14 Cardinals (2-1), meanwhile, are left to wonder what went awry in another clunker, at least when the outcome remained in doubt, against a premier defense.
In last year’s Citrus Bowl, Louisiana State bottled Jackson on the way to a 29-9 victory.
Jackson finished with 381 yards of total offense against Clemson, much of it cosmetic and coming with the Cardinals well behind in the fourth quarter. His longest run went for 30 yards, and he did not score a rushing touchdown in front of an announced crowd of 55,588, the second largest in Cardinal Stadium history.
“We came out flat,” said Jackson. “We weren’t scoring points. The offense did a horrible job tonight. It’s all on us.”
Elbow room in the stands grew increasingly available in the final minutes of the third quarter following a one-yard touchdown run by Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, charged with replacing Deshaun Watson, the offensive MVP in last season’s national championship game.
Bryant’s touchdown extended the lead to 33-7 with 2:16 to go. The Tigers had been in front, 26-7, with 8:57 to play when linebacker Dorian O’Daniel gathered a leaping interception of Jackson’s pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown of O’Daniel’s career and Clemson’s first turnover forced this year.
The Tigers rolled up 613 yards of total offense and averaged 7.6 yards per play. Bryant, a junior, completed 22 of 32 passes for 316 yards and one touchdown without an interception before exiting for good with five minutes to play. He added two rushing touchdowns, outshining Jackson when it mattered in the much-hyped matchup.
Louisville fans began lining up outside the gates hours before kickoff of one of the most anticipated games in school history. Most of the Cardinals faithful arrived clad in black, including some proudly wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Heisman” in a nod to Jackson.
The junior is seeking to become the second player to win college football’s most prestigious individual award twice, joining Ohio State’s Archie Griffin. Jackson’s Heisman campaign this season got off to rousing start over the first two games, including last week when he amassed 525 total yards and accounted for six touchdowns in a 47-35 win against North Carolina.
Approximating those statistics, however, figured to be a chore against Clemson, which features one of the most menacing defensive lines in the country. Entering the game, the Tigers were leading major college football with 60 sacks, including 11 in last week’s 14-6 victory over then-No. 13 Auburn.
“If you had asked me before the game if we were going to dominate, obviously I’m going to have confidence, but you just know they’re going to make plays. That’s just who they are, what they do,” said Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins. “They’ve got a lot of explosive players over there, so to hold them to seven points through three quarters, that just shows the commitment of the guys on defense.”
In addition, the Tigers had been approaching this game with an edge following Jackson’s performance against them last year. In that 42-36 Clemson triumph in Death Valley, Jackson combined for 457 total yards, 162 rushing. He also rushed for a pair of touchdowns and threw for another.
With the first major showdown between ACC powers at hand this time, the stadium Saturday night was virtually filled by kickoff, with the sea of Louisville black dwarfing Clemson fans in their customary orange. Tigers supporters occupied roughly five sections comprising both the lower and upper bowls in one open end of the stadium by the Louisville football complex.
They cheered as loudly as they could when the Tigers ran onto the field, but their voices became barely audible as Louisville players emerged from their red tunnel.
Clemson loyalists were able to celebrate the first points of the game when Bryant kept the ball on a read option, ran around the right side and dragged a defender into the end zone with 9:45 left in the first quarter. Bryant’s fourth rushing touchdown of the season capped a 10-play drive covering 79 yards that featured his 40-yard completion to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.
The game was tied at 7 with 4:22 remaining in the first quarter when Jackson directed a 95-yard drive that ended with his eight-yard completion to tight end Charles Standberry. During the series, Jackson broke loose for a 30-yard run that moved him into first in ACC history in career rushing yards (2,822) by a quarterback, surpassing Georgia Tech’s Joshua Nesbitt.
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