There were three top-10 college football showdowns this past weekend, but with all due respect to Stanford/Washington and Wisconsin/Michigan, there’s no denying which one stole the show. Yes, in what could wind up being the game of the year, No. 5 Clemson held off No. 3 Louisville, 42-36, to secure its spot atop the ACC.
It was a thriller from start to finish.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and if you had told me before the game we were going to play 105 gradable snaps of defense and have five turnovers against the No. 3 team in the country and win the game, (I’m not sure I would have believed you),” Dabo Swinney said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “That’s character, that’s heart, that’s the culture of your program. We’ve won 19 in a row at home. These guys, it’s just something about them. Our seniors, they have one career loss at home and that was their freshman year, and our freshmen, sophomores and juniors have never lost at home. There’s a lot of pride here. I tell people all the time: if you’ve never been to a game at Death Valley in Clemson, South Carolina, if you’re a football fan you should just put it on your bucket list because you’re going to have a blast. It is a great place to see a college football game and it was at its best Saturday night, no doubt about it. Our fans were great, especially when we needed them there in the end.”
Swinney wanted to play 60-65 defensive snaps all night – and in the first half, Clemson was right on schedule, limiting Lamar Jackson and a potent Louisville offense to just 10 points.
“Everything really went according to script that first half, especially in the second quarter,” Swinney said. “We just put all three phases together and we kept (Jackson) at bay. For us, we knew that we would be the best front he had seen. We felt like we could do a much better job of keeping him in the pocket a little bit. . . . When we watched those previous few games that they played, I told our guys, ‘Hey, they made a lot of layups. There were some guys running wide open. We got to take the lay-ups away and we got to make him make some three-pointers with a hand in his face. This is a special guy here, and if you give him a bunch of lay-ups and let him get in rhythm, you’re in trouble.’”
Jackson certainly got in rhythm in the second half, leading five consecutive scoring drives. Louisville scored 26 unanswered points and turned a 28-10 halftime deficit into a 36-28 fourth-quarter lead.
“The turnovers really hurt us,” Swinney said. “We had two in the red zone that cost us points. . . . Because of the turnovers and us scoring so fast, it really put our defense in a bind and they got tired. They got tired at the end of the game, but they continued to just give all they have. And listen, this guy is something special now. He is electric. He played with a tremendous amount of heart and toughness for his team.”
Jackson threw for 295 yards, ran for 162 and had three touchdowns (one pass, two rush). But it wasn’t enough, as Deshaun Watson led two scoring drives in the final minutes. His 20-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams brought the Tigers to within 36-34, and his 31-yard pass to Jordan Leggett with 3:14 to go put them over the top.
Watson finished 20-of-31 for 306 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran 14 times for 91 yards and looked nothing like the quarterback who struggled – at least by his standards – through the first four games of the season.
“He’s special,” Swinney said. “I promise you, he’s not trying to win the Heisman. Deshaun Watson just wants to win. His goal is to win, and that’s what he does. He’s lost two games ever here. One was at Georgia Tech his freshman year. He played about 12 snaps and he got hurt. And then the other one was the national championship game. The bottom statistic is does a quarterback win? And he is the ultimate winner, an incredible preparer, a grinder, is a super human being, great poise – that’s what you saw the other night. He could have easily gotten frustrated, but he just kept playing. When we had to have it, we had to go 85 yards to win the game. He took his team right down the field to win the game with a great touchdown pass to Leggett. That’s what great quarterbacks do. That’s what great leaders do. He’s special, man. I don’t think there’s a better player in the country. He is the most complete player in the country without a doubt.”
Clemson, ranked No. 3 in this week’s AP poll, plays just one ranked team the rest of the regular season: at No. 23 Florida State (3-2) on Oct. 29.
Swinney, however, insists his team isn’t looking ahead. The Tigers face Boston College (3-2) in Chestnut Hill this Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
“I guarantee you they’ll be ready,” Swinney said of his players. “We don’t worry about who we play, or where we play or what time we play or who’s watching. We play to a standard here. Every week is the biggest game of the year for us. That’s just the mentality we have. That’s how our program is built. What’s in front of us? What’s next? Bottom line, we’re always trying to get better. That’s why we’ve been able to be incredibly consistent.”
The Tigers have won 28 of their last 30 games, including 22 of their last 23.
“We just show up,” Swinney said. “One thing this group will do, they’ll show up and they’ll compete. Just spot the ball and we’re going to be ready. We’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great night in Boston. I know it’s a huge game for them, just like it is for us. I tell our guys every week, ‘Hey, your voice is how you play.’ We take a lot of pride in how we play.”
While Swinney isn’t looking ahead to a possible playoff rematch with No. 1 Alabama (5-0), he does think the ACC compares favorably to the SEC, as well as the rest of the country.
“The SEC has been an incredible league, but I think from top to bottom, this league is second to none,” he said. “There’s a lot of parity. Anybody can beat anybody in any given week in this league.”