Deshaun Watson spent most of the second half in an unfamiliar place: on the sidelines.
Lamar Jackson was also in a strange position: on the field in the fourth quarter.
No matter how strange things were for the two Heisman Trophy caliber quarterbacks however, few could have predicted the wild swings of a classic heavyweight battle that No. 5 Clemson survived with a 42-36 victory.
Jackson did his best in the hostile environment to keep Louisville’s perfect season alive by throwing for 295 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 162 more and two scores.
While Jackson was a big part in a rally that turned a 10 point deficit into a 12 point lead, Todd Grantham’s defense played a role too. Clemson came out of the locker room and turned the ball over three times — once in the red zone — and went three-and-out on another possession in the second half to stunt most of their momentum. Louisville responded with a 19-0 run on four consecutive scoring drives to storm back and take the lead.
Desperately needing something, Artavis Scott busted out a 77 yard return for the Tigers to get the crowd back into it at Memorial Stadium. Clemson scored just two plays later to cut it to a two point game.
That’s when Watson finally looked like the quarterback everybody was expecting coming into 2016. He helped mount an eight play, 85 yard drive with just over three minutes left before finding Jordan Leggett over the middle for the game-winning score.
Jackson responded by marching the Cards right down the field in the final minutes but receiver James Quick couldn’t quite make it to the first down marker or the end zone on fourth down to complete the second half comeback.
The win by the Tigers all but gives them the ACC Atlantic title and punches their ticket to the league title game. Clemson owns the head-to-head win over Louisville and is already two games up on Florida State ahead of their meeting in Tallahassee at the end of the month. Despite a lackluster first month of the season, the victory also helped show the nation that a return trip to the final four at the end of the year is just as realistic as it was in August.
The close loss doesn’t knock Louisville completely out of the ACC race nor does it eliminate them from a potential College Football Playoff bid but certainly takes a little wind out of their sails the rest of the season. They’ll need help to win the division but a dream season is certainly not over after Saturday’s thriller in which they came up just a little short.