For the first time this season, the Cardinals found themselves on the losing end of the scoreboard when the final whistle blew. It started the way the past two match-ups between these two teams had gone. Louisville’s offense was held without a point in the first quarter for the first time all season, but the defense held the Clemson offense scoreless through the first 15 minutes as well. The 2nd quarter began with the Cardinals deep in Tiger territory. It didn’t take long for the offense to punch in the first touchdown of the game on a Jeremy Smith 1 yard burst. The rest of the 2nd quarter, did not follow the same script.
With every ounce of momentum, it seemed Louisville was ready to add to its lead following a Jaire Alexander interception in the endzone. Then a miscommunication between Hughley and Jackson led to an early snap and a turnover just as the Cards were hitting their stride. That unforced error led to a touchdown a few plays later and the game was tied. The next possession for the offense had a similar result, a deep pass down the sideline was intercepted on a diving effort by the Clemson defensive back. The very next play, Clemson gave the ball back on a fumble and all seemed well. What happened next, was unlike any other sequence I’ve seen. The Cards missed a big opportunity to capitalize on another Clemson turnover by giving the ball right back on the first play of the drive. 3 plays in a row between the two offenses that read, interception, fumble, fumble. What the Louisville offense had failed to do, Clemson did in one play. After the fumble that gave the Tigers the ball back, Clemson found their first lead. A pass interference on the Louisville defense moved the ball from the 38 to the Louisville 24, the next snap would be a 24-yard Wayne Gallman touchdown run. Clemson would score again to make the score 21-7, and the Cards found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Lamar led an impressive 76-yard drive down the field in 3 minutes and 10 seconds on 13 plays, but the Cards could only get a field goal. It looked as though the halftime score would read 21-10, which after repeatedly shooting ourselves in the foot, would’ve been a blessing. The Clemson offense was not done, in 32 seconds they drove 73 yards and added another touchdown with only 5 seconds to go in the half to make the score 28-10 with a half of football left. It was time to put up or shut up.
For a team to truly be a contender, it must respond to adversity. An 18-point halftime deficit, several blatantly missed calls one way that were called on the other side of the ball, and a WWE like choke-hold that sent Lamar into a frenzy was more than enough to cause any team to embrace the victim role. Not this team, not last night. Ben Boulware, Clemson’s best defensive player, had one of the dirtiest plays I’ve seen in a college football game. It wasn’t dirty because he went low in the play, or targeted the helmet of a Cardinal player. It was a malicious play due to the fact that in no way, shape, or form is a sleeper hold at the TOP, not the bottom, of the pile a football play. Lamar Jackson picked up a few yards and was brought down by Boulware and company on top of a pile of red and orange, seconds went by and the players dispersed but Jackson was obviously upset with something. At first, I had no idea what happened, who truly knows the mess that occurs at the bottom of a pile except the players involved. However, this was different. Lamar’s calm, cool, and collected demeanor was nowhere to be found, and that was enough for any official to take another look at what occurred. The replay finally showed the incident, and as clear as day you could see the entire arm of Ben Boulware wrapped around Lamar’s neck attempted to choke the Heisman favorite into a deep sleep. Say what you want, I still believe if you can review a targeting penalty to eject a player, a choke-hold should warrant a replay as well, had that replay been taken, Boulware might have been ejected before halftime. However, that was not the case.
The Cards had to regroup or suffer a loss the same way FSU was embarrassed in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium a couple weeks ago. The response by the Cardinals was something I have never seen as a lifelong Louisville fan. The defense came out and immediately got a turnover on the 2nd play of the half. A diving interception by Chucky Williams off a tipped pass gave the Cards the start they so desperately needed. 7 plays and 36 yards later, Louisville answered with a touchdown from Lamar Jackson to James Quick on 3rd and goal from the Clemson 8 yardline. The PAT was blocked, which made the score 28-16, still a long way to go. The defense again came out fired up, forcing a quick three-and-out and giving the offense the ball right away. An 11-play, 63-yard drive gave the Cards another field goal to pull within 28-19 with still 5:21 left in the 3rd quarter, Louisville was right back in it. As Clemson put together a 70 play drive and entered deep into Cardinal territory, we saw the patented ‘bend but don’t break’ mentality again by the defense. And again, it was Jaire Alexander and Chucky Williams making the play. A 15-yard pass moved the ball to the Louisville 5-yardline but not before Jaire Alexander poked the ball lose and Chucky Williams scooped it up and took off for 18 yards. The momentum had officially shifted. Following the turnover, Lamar and Co. put together a 7-play, 77-yard drive capped off by a Lamar Jackson 1-yard touchdown run, the score was now 26-28 with 45 seconds left in the 3rd. In less than 15 minutes of play, Louisville had effectively erased an 18-point halftime deficit to pull within 2 points in Death Valley. Setting the stage for an unforgettable 4th quarter.
As Clemson’s offense took the field, it was evident a stop needed to be made. A touchdown by the Tigers would put the Cards behind by 2 scores and a stop would mean a field goal would give them the lead. After another quick 3-and-out forced by the Louisville defense, and an uncharacteristically muffed punt by Jaire Alexander (which he recovered), the offense was ready to take over again. Another field goal capped off an 8-play, 62-yard drive to give the Cards their first lead of the game, 29-28 with 10:23 left to play. The defense trotted back out there with confidence and determination to give the offense the opportunity to build on the lead. They did just that, and guess who? You’re probably right, Jaire Alexander. The true sophomore had himself a game yesterday, picking Deshaun Watson off again on the 2nd play of the drive. Watson tried to exploit the massive height difference between Mike Williams and Alexander, Alexander didn’t care. He read the play perfectly and made a diving interception on a fade route specifically designed to take advantage of the height match-up. 4 plays and 55 yards later, Lamar struck again, this time on an 11-yard touchdown run, making the score 36-28 Louisville. The Cardinals had scored on 6 straight drives going back to the first half field goal. The number 1 offense in the nation was finally getting the better of the number 1 ranked defense. With 7:05 left, the Cardinal defense needed one stop and the offense could potentially put the game away, but a blown kickoff coverage allowed a 77 yard return to the Louisville 23-yardline. 2 plays later, Clemson had narrowed the gap to 2 points after throwing an interception on the 2-point conversion. The next possession for the offense didn’t follow the same script as the previous 6 drives had, the Cards were forced into a 54 second three-and-out and again the defense was called upon. Clemson’s offense moved the ball down field 85 yards in less than 3 minutes to take the lead on a 31 yard touchdown pass, this time the 2-point conversion was good, making the score 42-36 Clemson. The Heisman moment Lamar and all of CardNation had long awaited for, was here. Lamar was almost perfect, going 5-6 through the air (the incompletion was a ridiculous scramble and a shot to Cole Hikutini which could’ve easily been pass interference, theme of the night, right?) and added 31 yards on the ground to move the ball to the Clemson 9. It was 4th and 7, the moment was there, and a false start (one of many, that has to be fixed) moved the Cards back to the 14, making it a 4th and 12. The play was there, Lamar hit an open James Quick in the flat to the left and he pushed upfield. A defender closed the gap as Quick approached the yellow line on the TV and pushed him out of bounds. Quick’s immediate reaction was that he had the necessary yards to keep the drive alive, after looking across the field, he realized he was one-yard short. The Cardinals had again come up just short of knocking off Clemson for the 3rd straight year and Death Valley rejoiced (and stormed the field??).
Now, I’m sorry for this but I feel the need to go on a little tangent here. We are fans, we are not critics, if you’d like to be the latter, I suggest creating a Yelp account, go ahead and go crazy, no one will read what you say there. However, the amount of negative tweets I read last night about James Quick from our fanbase is absolutely unacceptable. We have to be better than that, we ARE better than that. If you’re the type of fan to throw a loss on one player, regardless of the situation, do yourself a favor and put on a different color. James Quick has been our leading receiver all season, he has made play after play, game in and game out, and for his 4 years in a Louisville uniform he has made CardNation proud. Forget about getting caught at Clemson two years ago, that safety who made that play is in the NFL now and was just as good in college. Forget about the play last night, we aren’t in that game without James Quick. That STUDENT-ATHLETE leaves his heart and soul on that field every time he walks off of it. He doesn’t get paid to play (not yet anyway), no player would ever intentionally step out one-yard short on 4th down, give the guy a break and look yourself in the mirror if you’re one of the fans I’m talking about right now. Look at the replay, please do yourself a favor before you vomit ignorance and show up in that young man’s mentions (believe me, he saw all the negativity he didn’t deserve from his own fanbase). If you look at the replay, you will see the officials made a huge mistake before the play was even started. There was no first down mark on the left side of the field, I understand players are supposed to know where to get to regardless, but in that environment, on that big of a play, all bets are off when you don’t have true reference point. There was little time on the clock, stepping out of bounds was the smart thing to do and by looking at his reaction, he thought he had the necessary yardage. Remember, the players don’t get to see that bright yellow line we get to see on the TV. The first down mark should’ve been there, not the stick, but the yellow stripe that is ALWAYS on the opposite side of the first down stick and that is on the officials. I am not making excuses for why we lost the game, several reasons factor into that equation. But I have never been so disappointed in a portion of our fanbase for the way some of you treated one of our own last night. To the fans that stood by him and the team and realized how truly special this team is (I mean come on, Clemson stormed the field for beating the Louisville Cardinals..let that sink in) I applaud you, to the fans that immediately placed blame on and harassed a senior in the program, do better and if you can’t do better, please find a new team to cheer for, there is absolutely no way that is acceptable. Rant over.
Impressively enough, Lamar Jackson was still the talk of the game. Several football analysts, both NFL and NCAA, said that Lamar is even more so the Heisman favorite now, and it’s not even close. To say that he further proved his Heisman supremacy after a loss is something I have never seen in my years of watching college football. Jackson finished 27-44 passing for 295 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. He added 162 yards on the ground in 31 carries as well as 2 more touchdowns, bringing his season total to 28 touchdowns, still well on his way to setting the single-season NCAA touchdown record. Brandon Radcliff finished with 69 yards on 13 carries with 1 fumble, and Jeremy Smith added 51 yards on 8 carried with the first touchdown of the game. Cole Hikutini continued to show why so many believed he is the best tight end in the ACC, he finished with 84 yards on 7 receptions, James Quick added 83 yards on 7 receptions as well as a touchdown. Josh Harvey-Clemons was everywhere, leading the team with 11 total tackles and 6 solo tackles. Zykiesis Cannon showcased his ability with 8 tackles, 1 for a loss. Chucky Williams and Keith Kelsey each had 7 total tackles as well. The story of the game though was the battle upfront. These games are often won in the trenches, for the first time all season, Louisville did not record a sack, Clemson had 5. Clemson also recorded 10 tackles for losses, Louisville only had 2. The Cards won the turnover battle though, forcing 3 interceptions and 2 fumbles, but the Cards still had 1 interception and 2 fumbles and they came at costly moments. Louisville had more first downs (31 to 26), more yards (568 to 507), and a strikingly large amount of possession more than the Tigers (37:29 to 22:31). The penalties, however, may have doomed the Cardinals with 11 penalties for 104 yards to Clemson’s 6 penalties for 61 yards.
In my opinion, the better team did not win last night. That’s the beauty of college sports though, anyone can be beat on any given Saturday. A 6-point loss in Death Valley, the toughest place to play in the nation, is nothing to hang your head about. It stings, and it’ll sting for the rest of the season, but this season is far from over. The Cards still have an outside shot at College Football Playoff spot, many analysts still have them in the top 4, even after the loss. With Houston still on the schedule, the Cards will need to be perfect from here on out, and they’ll need some help. No one in the nation has looked as good as this team, all bias aside, Lamar Jackson is the best player in the nation, and there isn’t a close second. The tough part of the schedule is behind us, now we look at a bye week and then go back at it when we host Duke in two Fridays. The season is still alive, the Heisman is still Lamar’s to lose, and this team is still getting better.