Louisville came into Death Valley riding high on the play of Lamar Jackson and putting up big points against defenses much inferior to that of the Tigers (and after watching FSU against UNC today, it’s clear to me that the Noles are not playing anywhere near their talent level). The game held the promise of being a high-scoring game, especially if the Tiger offense hit its stride, but it started as a defensive battle, with both teams throttling those high-powered offenses. The crowd in Death Valley played a role early, with Louisville committing multiple false start penalties.
The Tiger defense, especially Christian Wilkins, kept Jackson from reaching the edge early, forcing the Cardinals to run into the teeth of the Tiger defense. Once again, defensive coordinator Brent Venables had a brilliant plan to put Tiger defenders in good positions to keep Louisville’s offense off balance. The Tiger offense on the other hand started slowly, and the Cardinals scored on a short run that came after the Tiger defense made a rare mistake and gave up a big pass reception to the tight end. Only a superhuman effort by linebacker Ben Boulware kept that play from ending up in a touchdown.
As Deshaun Watson goes, so goes the Tiger offense. Into the second quarter he was still having accuracy problems, especially on deep throws. He had Mike Williams open in the end zone for a sure touchdown, but underthrew him, allowing the Cardinal defender to intercept the pass and stifle another Tiger drive.
Then Watson found his rhythm with the receivers and the Tiger offense finally woke up. Deon Cain pulled in a 33 yard touchdown strike from Watson. Later, Wayne Gallman made a beautiful cut on a 24 yard touchdown run. Cain made a great catch for a second touchdown. With less than a minute left in the first half, the Tigers executed a great drive, ending with an touchdown throw to Artavis Scott to go up 28-10 at the end of the half.
After halftime, the Tiger offense got cold again, and Ray-Ray McCloud let a pass bounce off him and Louisville made an athletic play to get the interception. The Cardinals then went on a scoring spree, putting 19 unanswered points on the board. The second Louisville touchdown was particularly deflating because it came after the Tigers were on their way to scoring when Jordan Leggett fumbled and the Cardinals recovered the ball. With the Cardinals now up 29-28, the Tiger offense needed to respond. They responded with an interception, and Loiusville drove down the field with Jackson scoring on an 11 yard run. It was clear at this point that the Tiger defense was tired. The crowd had lost its energy.
Then Artavis Scott made a tremendous run back of the ensuing kickoff to bring the energy back to the Tigers and the crowd. (Tavien Feaster needs to run hard on kickoff returns like Scott did. He seems to run too timidly to me.) Watson hit Mike Williams for a touchdown and the Tigers were back in it. Clemson went for two to tie the score, but Louisville kept the Tigers out of the end zone with an interception, leaving the Tigers down by two, 36-34. On Louisville’s next possession the Tiger defense forced a 3-and-out. The Tiger offense then rose to the occasion with a nice drive and a Leggett touchdown and a two-point conversion to make it 42-36. The stage was set for an exciting Louisville offense with three minutes left in the game.
And an exciting finish it was. Jackson drove the Cardinals deep into Tiger territory. With Death Valley rocking like never before, the Tiger defense came through and stopped the Cardinals on 4th and 12 to seal the win.
The Tigers still have a lot of work to do, especially on the offensive side of the ball. As Coach Swinney said, “We stunk it up in the 3rd quarter.” But the Tigers kept their composure, stepped up, and won the game in the 4th quarter. Look for in-depth analysis of the game on STS in the coming days.