After a dominant defensive performance in Death Valley against Auburn, Clemson headed north for their first road game of the year to take on the Louisville Cardinals. All week the game was pitched as the Tiger defense against Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Given the previous week’s performances, that was a natural expectation for the game, but my big concern was how well the Tiger offense would do in a hostile environment on the road. They did just fine.
Louisville got the ball first but the Tiger defense sent the Cardinals packing after three plays. The first Tiger possession looked good. Hunter Renfrow caught a long throw from Kelly Bryant. C.J. Fuller converted a 4th and 1 deep in Louisville territory. Bryant made a great fake and then ran it in to put the Tigers up 7-0. The Tiger defense then followed with a 3-and-out, with Jackson not throwing very well.
The next Tiger drive started well, but fell part with some poor right tackle play again. The punt by Will Spiers was very good though, covering 65 yards. Facing an offense led by someone like Jackson is much easier when your punter can flip the field like that. But the Cardinals moved down the field with some good running by Jackson, and a big loss for the Tiger defense came when Tanner Muse was ejected for targeting. It was a close call to me, and I know how tough it is to react at game speed when the runner is falling, but defenders need to work harder at getting their heads out of the tackle. Check out the “eyes through the thighs” technique that the Seattle Seahawks use. The ejection had the Tiger defense discombobulated on the next play and after a Jackson scramble and throw, the game was tied 7-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, Travis Etienne bobbled the kick, putting the Tigers deep in their own territory. Deon Cain had a good 3rd and 6 conversion, but Bryant was not throwing well in this series, underthrowing Cain on a long pass that would likely have ended in a touchdown. The punt, however, was again good. The next Cardinal series ended when Jackson was sacked on 3rd and 5. The Tigers then started well, with a nice 1st down run by Bryant and a reception by freshman Tee Higgins. Despite a third down conversion by Renfrow, the drive ended up stalling. Greg Huegel’s field goal attempt went wide right. The Tiger defense responded by getting Jackson and company off the field.
The punt return by Ray-Ray McCloud put the Tigers near midfield. Milan Richard had a 2nd and 10 conversion, and Bryant ran well, but drive stalled and Clemson settled for a field goal, 10-7. The Tiger defense held Jackson in check again, but the Louisville punter got a nice punt off to push the Tigers back. McCloud got loose on a double move route and Bryant laid in right in his hands for a 79-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt was blocked, leaving the Tigers up 16-7. The Tiger defense got the job done again, giving the Tiger offense a chance to work the two-minute offense. They did pretty well, and appeared to have a touchdown on a catch by Cain, but a face mask penalty brought it back. Clemson settled for a field goal and went to halftime with a 19-7 lead.
The Tiger offense started the 3rd quarter with some nice running by Fuller and Feaster, but Feaster missed a block on a 3rd down, resulting in a sack of Bryant. A touchdown here would have really put Louisville in a hole, but the Tiger offense couldn’t get it done. The Tiger defense, however, could. After a 51-yard run by Jackson was called back because of a chop block on the backside of the play, Dorian O’Daniel fooled Jackson into throwing an interception, and he took it all the way back 45 yards to make the Tiger lead 26-7. When the Cardinals got the ball back, the Clemson defense sent them back to the sideline with a nice coverage sack on third down.
The next drive by the Tigers had me thinking back to the days when Danny Ford roamed the sideline. Clemson lined up and ran the ball right at Louisville. Feaster is known for his speed, but he has really done a good job of adding powerful running in between the tackles to his repertoire. Don’t be too surprised if he gets the start next week. The Tigers drove down the field, beating the fight right out of the Cardinals, and finished with a touchdown run by Bryant. Clemson was up 33-7.
On the next Louisville possession, backup players for Clemson began to get playing time. Louisville drove down the field and scored on a 36-yard pass that took advantage of busted coverage deep down the middle. The score was now 33-14.
The Tigers responded with a drive that featured a nice throw on the run by Bryant to Diondre Overton. With the Cardinal defense showing signs of fatigue, and perhaps a broken spirit, Adam Choice got loose on a 39-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers up 40-14. Louisville then had another decent drive against (mostly) Tiger backups and scored on an 8-yd pass to make it 40-20 Tigers.
The Tigers then brought in a bunch of backup players on offense and the drive started ugly with multiple false-start penalties, but then Etienne showed why the coaches speak so highly of him as he used his deadly combination of power and speed, breaking tackles and then outrunning the defense on an 81-yd touchdown. At 47-21, the game was in hand, as Tiger backups continued to get valuable playing time.
Things are looking pretty good for the Tigers at this point of the season. Concerns about the ability of the offense to score points have now been allayed. The Tigers had over 600 yards of offense tonight. This team looks like a genuine competitor for the playoff. After tonight, I doubt you’ll see ESPN Game Day hosts unanimously pick against Clemson. That defense and an effective offense makes for a tough opponent. As always, check back with us at STS for the unparalleled analysis of the game and previews of the Boston College game. Give us your thoughts on tonight’s game and where you think the Tigers stand in the national college football picture in the comments section below.