If you can’t buy a ticket around Death Valley on a football Saturday, you know an excellent game is coming to town. Extra tickets were nonexistent on Saturday as the highest ranked matchup in Death Valley history was set to kick off at 8:22 PM between the #5 Clemson Tigers and the favored #3 Louisville Cardinals.
Rarely does such a hyped matchup really live up to the ESPN Instant Classic expectations that are hoisted upon huge games, let alone exceed expectations like this game did. Saturday’s matchup turned out to be arguably one of the loudest home games in Clemson history, the best game in Death Valley history, and one of the best college football games of 2016.
This game had a little taste of everything for fan’s various football tastes, and a whole lot of excitement for the viewers across the nation.
The student section was full an hour before kickoff, and not a seat was empty as 83,362 people filled Memorial Stadium. The 107 decibel sound hurt all of the ears in the stadium and the press box at various points throughout the night, but the spirit of college football made it worth it.
The crowd noise rattled Louisville from the first snap, as two consecutive false starts put the Cardinals in an unusual first-and-twenty situation on the first drive.
For defensive junkies, the first quarter was heavenly and scoreless. Each team only converted one of four third downs, their three drives apiece ended in punts, and there were eight first downs the whole quarter.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was limited to one passing yard on six throws; but he managed to gain 27 yards on six rushes to compliment Wayne Gallman’s 26 yards on three rushes. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was three for seven for 41 yards and rushed five times, but was also sacked twice.
The punters also shined, as Cardinal Mason King booted a sixty yarder while Andy Teasdall pinned a 41 yarder inside the one-yard line.
Fans of Louisville rejoiced as the Cardinals punched the ball in on third and goal less than a minute in the second quarter and a beautiful Clemson drive ended in a Jaire Alexander interception of Watson at the goal line, but fans of Clemson soon had their fears washed away.
The offense had its best quarter of the season as they strung together a 28-3 scoring run to make the fans think that the game was just about put away. The four touchdown drives took one minute and fifty-four seconds combined.
Deon Cain saw his redemption as he caught two fade route touchdowns, and Wayne Gallman finally had a big run with his 24-yard touchdown run.
Fans typically prefer teams to try and score at the end of the first half, while most coaches tend to run the clock out. This time, the Tigers pleased the fans as three intermediate Watson passes, two timeouts, and one pass interference call lead to a five-yard touchdown throw with five seconds left to put the Cardinals into a deeper hole.
Lamar Jackson had been sacked four times, limited to 111 yards passing and 54 yards rushing, and appeared to be figured out. The rest of Louisville’s offense was also struggling. On defense the Cardinals didn’t appear to have an answer for the Tigers’ offense, especially for their defensive backs whom were watching helplessly as the Tigers’ vaunted receivers raced past them for score after score.
Louisville had nine penalties for 95 yards in the first half, and while some of the penalties had been questionable; the Cardinals had not helped themselves out of the situation.
With Clemson set to receive the ball at the start of the second half, the Tigers had this game just about wrapped up, right? The beauty of college football is that nothing can be taken for granted.
Fans across the country were starting to get restless, but the Cardinals were ready to shock the Tigers and the nation alike.
On the second play of the second half Deshaun Watson was intercepted by safety Chuckie Williams, leading to a methodical seven play drive for 36 yards lasting three minutes.
For fans of missed extra points and Tiger fans, the only good event in the third quarter happened on the extra point when Carlos Watkins blocked Brandon Creque’s point after attempt, making the score 28-16 Clemson.
Lamar Jackson was starting to slip by the Clemson defense, and the Tigers were starting to feel tired. The offense didn’t help as they went three and out by failing to convert a third and one.
Jackson, Radcliff, and the Cardinals seized the opportunity by taking four minutes and eleven plays to move down the field, mostly on the ground. The Tigers bent, but they didn’t break as they forced Louisville to settle for three points on another short field goal.
Clemson then appeared to take the game back in control by racing down the field 70 yards in less than two minutes before a costly Jordan Leggett fumble at the five gave the Cardinals back the ball at the 23-yard line.
A mix of sharp deep passes and runs enabled Louisville to score to make the game 28-26, and two plays by Clemson ended the third quarter.
The third quarter had rallied Cardinal nation and deflated Tiger nation, but the game was far from over for either side.
The aforementioned Clemson drive stalled and Teasdall punted. Clemson had a glimmer of hope as star Jaire Alexander muffed the return, but he found the ball to continue the Cardinal comeback. The Cardinals marched down the field only to have to kick a 28 yard field goal, but Louisville had its first lead since the first score as they lead 29-28.
Clemson’s dreams and Watson’s Heisman hopes were further destroyed as he threw another pick to Jaire Alexander on the second play of the ensuing drive to give the Cardinals the ball and the chance to drive down the field.
Remember how Lamar Jackson was almost escaping? He then ran for 38 yards to the Tiger 18, and three plays later ran for an 11-yard touchdown to put the Cardinals in the driver’s seat, 36-28 with 7:52 to play.
While the Tiger fans were faithful in staying, their faith was quaking as the season appeared to be dying right in front of them. Coach Swinney and the team didn’t panic, and instead he made a crucial adjustment: putting seasoned veteran Artavis Scott in on kick return team. Artavis Scott has always ran with passion, but he made the most important play of his career as he ran the ball back 77 yards to give the Tigers the ball at the Louisville 23.
The embers of hope were sparked, and the Tigers never looked back. On the second play from scrimmage, Watson threw a slant to the star pass catcher Mike Williams for a 20-yard score and to put the Tigers within range of a tie, 36-34.
This time, the Tigers were on the failed end of a two-point conversion attempt as Watson was intercepted (but not returned for a score). Now Louisville had the lead and the ball with 6:59 left, could they keep the Tigers playing catch up for the rest of the year?
The exhausted Tiger defense jumped at the chance to get off the field as they forced the first Louisville punt of the second half in a three and out of domination.
This was Clemson’s offensive drive of the season. They had six minutes and 85 yards to go – likely too long to lumber down the field, and definitely too long to sprint down the field.
The Tigers decisively drove down the field while conquering their only third down attempt of the drive. In a game of redemption, Jordan Leggett was redeemed as he caught and ran his 31-yard touchdown catch, making a defender miss and holding onto the ball. In case anyone still doubted Leggett, his two-point conversion catch silenced the naysayers and put the Tigers on top 42-36.
The Clemson defense was exhausted, and the Louisville offense still had the fire burning in them. It was three minutes, 75 yards, with the winner in control of their conference championship and playoff destiny.
Lamar Jackson passed and ran for 63 yards in seven plays in what looked like his Heisman Moment Drive. The Tigers’ defense was depleted, and the Cardinals had them right where they wanted them at 1st and 10 on the twelve-yard line.
The drive then stalled with a three and no gain plays to set the Cardinals up in third and seven. Lamar Jackson dropped back, rolled to the right, escaped the Clemson defenders, and threw a bullet to Cole Hikutini. It was an almost perfect pass that looked to be caught for a second, but the Tigers managed to force the incompletion to force 4th and 7.
Remember the crowd noise? After a raucous first half, the third quarter had seen Death Valley quiet as a mouse. The fourth quarter slowly rose in energy and sound, with the fans roaring at this point. In Clemson fashion, the fans forced a timeout and a false start from the Cardinals to make it 4th and 12.
This was crucial. A run was no longer a viable option, and this took out the run pass option plays also. This would force the Cardinals to be one dimensional, and take it to the air. Lamar Jackson found James Quick in the flat, and it looked like Quick would make the first down.
Two years ago, Quick caught the pass that Jayron Kearse had ran down at the eight in order to force the goal line stand to win the game. The five star receiver was noted as talented but inconsistent, and this was his chance to make his mark.
But either he didn’t know where the first down marker was, or he was too scared to fight for a first down by cutting back inside. Marcus Edmond earned his redemption as he tackled Quick out of bounds one yard short of the sticks to win the game for Clemson, 42-36.
Truly great games have truly great endings, and from start to finish, the game did not disappoint.