CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had a simple message for his defense in facing Louisville star Lamar Jackson.
“If he’s Superman,” Swinney told them, “we’re going to be the Kryptonite.”
No. 5 Clemson did just enough, rallying for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and stopping Jackson and No. 3 Louisville a yard short on fourth down with 33 seconds left to hold on for a 42-36 victory Saturday night.
The Tigers (5-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) rallied behind Deshaun Watson’s five touchdowns, the last two coming in the final seven minutes, after Louisville (4-1, 2-1) wiped out an 18-point lead behind another standout performance by Jackson.
Watson was no slouch. He had his errors — a career-high three interceptions and a fumble — but in the end found a way to succeed with 306 yards on 20-of-31 passing.
“It just shows even with the hiccups how good we are and how good we can be,” Watson said. “We found a way how to handle adversity.”
The Tigers looked like they had this one wrapped up before halftime, scoring four TDs in the second quarter to lead 28-10 at the break. Then “Action” Jackson got moving and the Cardinals (4-1, 2-1) scored on five consecutive possessions to take a 36-28 lead with 7:50 left.
Artavis Scott began Clemson’s comeback with a 77-yard kickoff return and Watson found Mike Williams for a 20-yard scoring pass two plays later. Clemson forced Louisville to punt for the only time in the second half and Watson guided the game-winning drive, ending on a 31-yard TD catch by Jordan Leggett.
Jackson had one last surge, leading Louisville to Clemson’s 9. But James Quick was knocked out of bounds Louisville’s final play shy of the first down.
“Lamar knew where he needed to go with the ball and we came up a yard short,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said.
The Tigers have won 19 straight games at home, a streak that began after they lost their last top-five showdown — when No. 5 Florida State defeated No. 3 Clemson 51-14 in 2013. In that one, Jameis Winston led a Seminoles rout.
Clemson made sure Jackson would not pull off another one.
“A lot of guys picked Louisville,” Swinney said. “Rough night for you.”
Louisville: The Cardinals have climbed in the Top 25 and may wind up running the table without another loss in the regular season. Louisville will regret its slow first half in this one, which may have cost it an ACC title and possible national championship shot.
Clemson: Can anyone stop the Tigers from claiming the ACC Atlantic’s spot in the league title game? Florida State’s loss to North Carolina means the Tigers would have to lose at least twice for the Cardinals, Seminoles or anyone else in the Atlantic to have a chance. Clemson is 19-4 against its remaining ACC opponents the past five years, with three of the defeats coming to Florida State.
Louisville: The Cardinals will fall, but should stay in the top 10. There won’t be much dropoff in losing at Clemson, which is 49-6 at home since Dabo Swinney became coach.
Clemson: Count on the Tigers bouncing up into the top four — and more than a few talking heads annoiting Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson as the four presumptive College Football Playoff teams.
The game figured to be a showcase — and Heisman Trophy showdown — for Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. While the Tigers came out on top, Jackson did not disappoint and most likely kept himself in the conversation going forward. Watson, after a slow start to the season, also elevated his candidacy with his fourth-quarter rally against the Cardinals.
“I guess so,” Watson said when asked if he’s back out front for the Heisman. “We both played good for our teams and had a chance to win. That’s out of my control.”
It didn’t always look like it, but Clemson’s defense kept Louisville off its offensive average. The Cardinals gained 568 yards, a whopping number but still below the 682 they were averaging coming in. The 36 points were also 27 fewer than what they’ve scored this season. The Tigers finished with 10 tackles for loss and five sacks of the elusive Jackson.
Louisville: Gets next week off to regroup before returning to action with a Friday night game at home against Duke on Oct. 14.
Clemson: The Tigers have another short week, traveling to Boston College to play on Friday night.