Clemson University

The ACC’s newest rivalry exceeded expectations

Clemson's Deshaun Watson reacts to win over Louisville

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson discusses the win over Louisville.
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Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson discusses the win over Louisville.

A few observations after Clemson’s 42-36 win Saturday night in a game pitting an old guard ACC power against the nouveau riche.

Clemson won its 19th regular season game in a row and secured a significant advantage in the ACC Atlantic Division. Following Georgia Tech on the Clemson schedule and four weeks before the trip to Tallahassee, this was the most significant test for a team that hadn’t played to its expectations.

There were moments of brilliance on a perfect night in Death Valley, they were frequently interrupted by costly mistakes by an experienced offense that should be better. The same mistakes that surfaced at Auburn and continued to percolate through Georgia Tech.

And yet, Clemson found a way to win – again.

Neither quarterback won the Heisman Trophy, but neither lost it. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson continued to flash the skill and quickness that thrust him into the conversation during the first month of the season.

Deshaun Watson played like a Heisman finalist in the second quarter when Clemson took an 18-point lead, and again in the fourth after Clemson fell behind by four points. Despite the three interceptions, his five touchdown passes might have been seven if not for an interception in the end zone and a fumble in the shadow of the goal posts.

The first two games in this series went to the wire, planting the seeds of a new conference rivalry this, too, did not disappoint.

The game was a contrast of programs traveling the same road in different cars. While Dabo Swinney was building Clemson’s reputation with top 15 recruiting classes, Bobby Petrino’s last four classes at Louisville, predominantly populated by two- and three-star prospects, were ranked by ESPN 36th, 30th, 53rd and 43rd.

Jackson, a “three,” wasn’t a lock at quarterback, according to the scouting report which described him as “more of a sandlot player as a passer than he’s the traditional quarterback from the pocket. Has enough of the skill set and foot speed to be a legitimate candidate to switch positions at the next level.”

For most of the first half Jackson’s speed was negated by Clemson’s ability to keep him between the tackles. Though Clemson finished with five sacks, Jackson was more elusive in the second half, driving his team to the red zone in the final minute for a last-ditch shot at the end zone.

Just as the Notre Dame game a year ago served as Clemson’s coming out, with the help of the crowd of 83,000 that included national power brokers from both states Clemson again marked its turf.