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What We Learned, Week 5: Clemson, Washington, Tennessee take command of divisional races

NCAA Football: Louisville at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Heart... Guts... Resiliency... That’s what it took for Clemson to beat the electric Louisville Cardinals on Saturday night in Death Valley.

Entering the game, many of our preview articles touched on the advantage Clemson held in the trenches. The Tigers two-deep on the D-line is composed of all four and five-star athletes (4.25 24/7 average), while the Louisville offensive line starts two two-star and three three-star athletes. Some dismissed this as nonsense, but early in the game, it bore out as a real advantage for Clemson.

At the start, the Tigers’ defense owned the line of scrimmage and held the explosive Louisville offense in check. They were able to get to Lamar Jackson for five sacks on the day, with the vast majority of the pressure coming in the first half. Despite a few mistakes, the offense was able to tally 28 first half points - all in the second quarter - to head into halftime with an 18-point lead.

The Tigers’ mistakes on offense began to catch up with them in the second half. Their first four drives after halftime resulted in: interception, punt, fumble, punt. By that point, Louisville’s big advantage in time of possession fatigued the Clemson defense and the Cardinals took advantage. They turned an 18-point halftime deficit into an 8-point fourth quarter lead, leaving Death Valley stunned.

That’s when the Clemson Tigers showed the heart and resiliency of a championship team. Following the Louisville TD that extended their lead to eight points, Artavis Scott returned the kickoff 77-yards to put the Tigers in scoring possession. Two plays later, Mike Williams would drag a defender into the end zone. After a failed two-point conversion attempt, the trailing Tigers kicked off and their exhausted defense was back on the field. Amazingly, they forced a three-and-out to return the ball to the offense, who faced a 2-point deficit with 6:11 remaining in the game.

The Tigers’ offense balanced three runs with five passes (four completions) as they marched down the field and then punched it in with 31-yard TD from Jordan Leggett: redemption after a critical red zone fumble earlier in the game.

Watson, despite some shaky play earlier with three INTs and missed deep throws, heroically led his team down the field to get the go-ahead TD. The only problem? The Tigers left 3:14 on the clock for Lamar Jackson to get the last laugh.

Jackson led his team down the field, looking every bit like the elite QB and Heisman front-runner the hype had indicated. The Cardinals reached the 12-yard line before Clemson called a timeout to regroup. The Tiger defense reached down deep and held Louisville to just three yards on the next two plays. On third-and-seven, a squirmy Jackson avoided a sack and threw a dart into the end zone, but it came up incomplete. 4th-and-7... one play for the reins to the ACC Atlantic.

After a Louisville timeout, the Death Valley crowd was as loud as you’ve ever heard it... loud enough to cause a critical false start penalty. Now 4th-and-12, Jackson went back to pass, but the coverage in the end zone was tight. He hit James Quick in the flats, who raced for the first down marker, while Marcus Edmond left his man to make the tackle. Converging barely a yard shy of the first down sticks, Marcus Edmond pushed Quick out of bounds. After a measurement, it was confirmed that he’d reached the receiver in time. Quick was short of the marker. It was a turnover on downs and the guttiest Clemson victory in ages.

If you’d like to rewatch any of the game, I highly recommend this abbreviated 30-minute version. It hits all the key plays without requiring three hours of devotion.

A quick look at the box score won’t show it, but the story of this game has to be the incredible Tiger defense. Louisville has the #1 offense in the country by the S&P+, scoring 59+ in their first four games. Clemson’s short drives and sloppy turnovers forced the Tiger defense back on the field time and time again - a recipe for disaster against Lamar Jackson. What’s so amazing is they came up with two game-winning stops in the final quarter to give Watson and Co. a chance to win the game. The Tigers have the best defensive coordinator and, quite possibly, the best defensive unit in the nation (#3 S&P+ defense after the contest).

The offense certainly has a lot to improve upon, but they came through with two important drives in the final minutes of a colossal matchup. The Tiger victory, coupled with Florida State’s loss to UNC, gives Clemson a two game lead over both Louisville and Florida State in the division. With that, they now have an inside track to returning to the college football playoff. Take a deep breath. It was awesome. We did it. Now let’s look at two other huge games that happened this weekend.

Out in Seattle on Friday, Washington took control of the Pac-12 North with a resounding 44-6 demolition of Stanford. The win shot them up to #5 in the AP poll. They’re also #6 in the S&P+ advanced stats rankings so the high ranking may very well be legitimate. They have not won a conference title since 2000, but were picked to win it by some on the Athlon Cover 2 Podcast and myself (#HumbleBrag). They appear to be the strongest team in the Pac-12 and the only one with a strong playoff opportunity.

Finally, there was total pandemonium in the final seconds of the Tennessee at Georgia game. Trailing by three with 0:57 remaining, UGA drove 81 yards and scored on a 47-yard pass from Jacob Eason. Tennessee, now trailing by four, benefited from some foolish penalties that put them at the UGA 43-yardline for the final play of the game. Joshua Dobbs hurled the ball all the way into the end zone, where Jauan Jennings caught the ball for the game winning TD. Classic Tennessee! They’ve got some magic this year and now have total control of the SEC East. They got a brutal draw from the SEC West, and will now face Texas A&M and Alabama, but even if they lose both of those games, they would still be likely to represent the East in Atlanta for the title game.

What a week of football! Now, we enjoy a quick week before going up north for a Friday night game against Boston College.