By the skin of their teeth, Clemson hung on Thursday night and remained at least on the periphery of the playoff discussion. Barely. And knowing full well that they’ll have to step their level of play up several notches if they want to be taken as serious contenders on the national stage — especially with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech on tap in back-to-back weeks early next month.
On a night when their offense was anything but high-octane, Clemson leaned heavily on a stout defense and an underrated running back — and an untimely special teams misstep on the other side — to escape with a 20-17 win on the road against Louisville. The win pushes the 11th-ranked Tigers to 3-0 on the season in what was the ACC opener for both schools.
Were it not for special teams, the Cardinals would not have even been in the game even as the same unit cost it a potential win.
A fourth-quarter field goal gave Clemson what many on social media, given how the Cardinals’ offense had looked most of the game (272 yards of offense), a seemingly insurmountable 20-10 lead early in the period. However, freshman Traveon Samuel returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to cut the lead to 20-17 with just under 10 minutes remaining. Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson added to the Tiger angst shortly thereafter as he missed a wide open receiver on third down to give the ball back to the Cardinals, after a punt, at their own 14-yard line.
Freshman Kyle Bolin, making his first career start, then drove his offense down to the Tigers 21-yard line, setting up a potential game-tying field goal with just under three minutes remaining. John Wallace, however, missed from 38 yards out to extinguish that hope.
But wait, there’s more.
The next possession, and after replay changed a first-and-10 to a fourth-and-1 at the Clemson 30, the Tigers were forced to give the ball back to the Cardinals with just over a minute remaining and no timeouts. The ‘Ville managed to move the ball down to the Clemson 37 and into field-goal range, but an errant snap on first down led to an incompletion and a sack on the next play pushed the Cardinals out of field-goal range. A Hail Mary on third down was intercepted — why Bobby Petrino didn’t call for a spike to stop the clock and better set-up that last-gasp effort is unknown — officially extinguishing all UofL hopes for an upset.
While Watson had both touchdowns for the Tigers on scoring tosses, he also threw a pair of interceptions that helped keep the Cardinals in the game. Wayne Gallman helped mitigate those mistakes, though, as he ran for a game-high 139 yards on 24 carries, with many of those yards coming after first contact and extending drives.
The loss was the Cardinals’ third straight to open the season, although the three losses have come by a combined 13 points. That said, the 0-3 start is the program’s worst to begin a season since 1984. That squad ended the year 2-9.
All told, this is the sixth time the Cardinals have started a season 0-3 or worse in the last 50 years, and never have they overcome that start to finish above .500. The best they could manage after such a start was 5-6 in 1984.