After two soft touches to open the season, nationally ranked Clemson passed its first test of adversity with a 20-17 win Thursday night over Louisville before a national TV audience and a crowd of 55,396 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium that included legendary heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali.
Deshaun Watson passed for two touchdowns, Greg Huegel kicked a pair of field goals and Wayne Gallman rushed for 139 yards as Clemson won its third straight from a team that’s yet to scratch.
Statistically, the game wasn’t close. Winless Louisville was plucky and opportunistic.
“When you go on the road you find out what mental toughness you have,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We had enough adversity in this game for the whole year, the whole season. We had about everything you could think of thrown at us (and) made it a lot harder than it needed to be.”
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Clemson totaled 401 yards with Watson completing 21 of 30 passes for 199 yards and touchdown passes to Hunter Renfrow and Jordan Leggett, but Watson was intercepted twice.
Limited largely to passing in wins over Wofford and App State, he rushed for 54 yards on 12 carries but was a half-yard short on his final carry, forcing Clemson to give the ball back to Louisville at its 37-yard line with 1:12 to play.
Kyle Bolin, Louisville’s third starting quarterback in three games, pushed the ball back into Clemson territory with a pass to Micky Crum at the Clemson 37. Bolin’s pass on first down was incomplete, and on second down was sacked by Chris Dodd at the 41.
Ending in similar fashion to last year’s game in Clemson, the game was reduced to a Hail Mary on third down that was deflected in the end zone and intercepted by Jadar Johnson as time expired.
Under Swinney the last five years, Clemson is 40-0 when leading after three quarters.
Louisville led once, briefly in the third quarter when Jeremy Smith scored on a one-yard touchdown to complete a nine-play, 58-yard drive. That made the score 10-7 less than five minutes into the second half.
Clemson seemed to gain a measure of momentum on Huegel’s 37-yard field goal and Watson’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Leggett four minutes apart for a 17-10 lead at 2:37 of the third.
Huegel added a 26-yard field goal for a 20-10 lead early in the fourth, but Traveon Samuel returned the kickoff 100 yards with 9:41 to play.
“We did a decent job right up there til the end,” he said. “To give up two turnovers, give up a touchdown on kickoff coverage, a couple of missed scoring opportunities … we just weren’t quite able to put them away.
“Give them credit.”
Clearly trying to establish the run between the tackles, Clemson achieved modest success during the first half yet never established an offensive rhythm.
Watson hit Renfrow for a 32-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter for a 7-0 lead, completing a five-play, 61-yard drive. Clemson punted four times in the half and other than the scoring drive managed no more than 34 yards in any other possession.
For the second straight game Watson was intercepted during Clemson’s first possession. Linebacker James Burgess wrestled a soft pass from tight end Leggett at the Louisville 34.
On the other hand the Clemson defense virtually neutralized Louisville until a 55-yard pass to Jaylen Smith late in the half set up a 26-yard field goal with 1:29 to play.
Bolin completed 19 of 34 passes for 234 yards, but Louisville managed only 19 rushing yards on 28 carries. Clemson had five sacks to Louisville’s one. Clemson was 5 of 14 on third down, Louisville 2 of 14.
“I’m really proud of the guys in the trenches,” Swinney said. “That’s where the game is won, and I thought they took it over on both sides.”
Midway through the first half Clemson lost two offensive tackles. Guard Maverick Morris lined up at right tackle for a couple of series before Joe Gore returned from tweaking his ankle. Jake Fruhmorgen injured a knee, but the extent of the injury will be evaluated over the weekend.
There should be time to recover from the minor tweaks and bruises since Clemson doesn’t play again until Notre Dame comes to Death Valley on Oct. 3.
“I think we’ve got a little (momentum) going into the open date,” Swinney said. “I don’t have any doubt that this game can help your team grow.”
Star of the game: Sophomore Wayne Gallman rushed for 139 yards on 22 carries .
Stat of the game: Clemson limited Louisville to 19 yards on 28 carries
Play of the game: Protecting a slim lead in the final two minutes, Andy Teasdall delivered a 33-yard punt under pressure to the Louisville 37 yard line.
Mixed reviews: Adding quarterback Deshaun Watson as a weapon in the run game did not provide the dimension Clemson coaches hoped to achieve
Line issues: Senior Joe Gore and freshman Jake Fruhorgen, No. 1 and No. 2 at offensive right tackle, were designated “questionable” after the first quarter. Redshirt sophomore Maverick Morris replaced them for a couple series but Gore returned and finished the game.
The Greatest: Louisville native Muhammad Ali, awarded a medal from the University of Louisville for his inspiration and philanthropy, was introduced from a suite between quarters. Ali,
Who: Clemson vs. Notre Dame
When: Time TBD, Oct. 3
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Clem—Renfrow 32 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), 13:12.
Lou—FG Wallace 26, 1:29.
Lou—Je.Smith 1 run (Wallace kick), 10:35.
Clem—FG Huegel 36, 6:57.
Clem—Leggett 25 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), 2:37.
Clem—FG Huegel 27, 9:57.
Lou—Samuel 100 kickoff return (Wallace kick), 9:41.
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Clemson, Gallman 24-139, Watson 12-54, Davidson 4-9. Louisville, Radcliff 19-45, Jackson 1-8, Je.Smith 2-3, Bolin 6-(minus 37).
PASSING—Clemson, Watson 21-30-2-199. Louisville, Bolin 19-34-2-238, Jackson 1-1-0-15.
RECEIVING—Clemson, A.Scott 8-40, McCloud 4-29, Leggett 3-42, Cain 2-26, Renfrow 1-32, Seckinger 1-17, Peake 1-12, Gallman 1-1. Louisville, Samuel 4-41, Crum 4-36, Ja.Smith 3-77, Peete 2-41, Scott 2-32, Savage 2-11, Bagley 2-9, Radcliff 1-6.