LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Turns out, Clemson’s offense can carry its weight better than even it expected.
The Tigers moved up a spot to No. 2 after their 613-yard explosion dominated Louisville 47-21 on Saturday night. Just when it seemed that Clemson’s defense might have to lead the charge toward repeating as national champions, quarterback Kelly Bryant made a case for the offense by putting up big numbers on the stat sheet and scoreboard.
Bryant even suggested the Tigers (3-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) could have been better.
“We showed we can run the ball (and) throw the ball,” he said after passing for 316 yards and one touchdown and rushing for two scores. “I just tried to make plays with my arm and legs.”
Clemson’s defense, meanwhile, held 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in check for most of the night to halt discussion — for now — about his becoming the award’s first repeat recipient since Archie Griffin in 1975.
After a 525-yard, six-TD performance at North Carolina, Jackson seemed headed toward one of his worst performances against Clemson. He missed his first four throws and had just 118 yards passing and one TD through three quarters, thanks to relentless pressure by a Clemson defense that ultimately sacked him four times.
“They didn’t make it easy for us,” Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “It just shows that we have to finish.”
Jackson threw for 199 yards and two scores in the fourth to account for 381 of Louisville’s 433 yards. But the Cardinals, who dropped five spots to No. 19, clearly have work ahead after a game that was just briefly competitive.
“We weren’t doing what we were supposed to do,” Jackson said in a low voice. “We kept getting off the field and kept putting our defense out there. Eventually, you know they’re going to get tired when you keep putting them out there with a fast-paced offense.”
Clemson’s ability to move the ball quickly after totaling just 281 yards in a 14-6 win over Auburn pleased coach Dabo Swinney the most.
Bryant set the tone on Clemson’s first series by hitting title-game hero Hunter Renfrow with a 40-yard pass down the middle to set up Bryant’s 8-yard TD run. The QB later hit a wide-open Ray-Ray McCloud with a 79-yard TD pass as the Tigers erupted for 26 straight points and a 33-7 lead.
Swinney believed his offense could grow. But moving forward with a marquee victory achieved on both sides of the ball helped the Tigers answer questions about balance.
“We had two goals,” Swinney said. “One was to get the job done, and the other was to leave no doubt. We felt like we left a little doubt in the past couple of years.”
For Jackson and Louisville (2-1, 1-1 ACC), the objective is getting things corrected against less-challenging opponents.
The Cardinals host Kent State and FCS team Murray State the next couple of weeks before resuming conference play against North Carolina State. That could allow the defense to regroup after giving up 40 points for the second time in five games along with 600 yards.
Jackson, self-critical even after wins, said he has some improvements to make as well. He acknowledged that his initial excitement to play Clemson again might have caused him to press to make things happen.
The good news is there’s still time for him to get back into the Heisman discussion and for the Cardinals to contend for the conference title. Clemson’s thorough win over Louisville might provide an example to follow.
“We’re going to grind hard,” Jackson said. “We don’t have another choice. I don’t like the way we ended this. The season’s not over, far from over.”