LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Somebody at the University of Louisville had better check the trophy cases to make sure the Clemson Tigers didn’t grab Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy and take it home with them.
Heaven knows, they took away everything else -- the Cardinals’ pride, their hopes for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, their visions of a spot in the College Football Playoff and Jackson’s chances to become the second player to win the Heisman back-to-back.
Before the second-largest crowd in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium history, along with a huge ESPN audience, the Cards got mugged Saturday night by a Clemson team that may be the best to ever visit Louisville. The final score was Clemson 47, UofL 21, and it wasn’t nearly that close.
It was the fourth time the Cards had played host to a defending national champion at home, and it came out the same as the first three -- a one-sided UofL loss. But this Cards’ team was better than those three predecessors, if for no other reason than that it had Jackson, who beat out Clemson’s Deshaun Watson to win the Heisman last season.
That didn’t sit well with Clemson fans, who pointed out that while the Cardinals were losing their last three games despite Jackson’s magic, the Tigers were marching to the national title behind Watson. In the championship upset of Alabama, Watson was at his multi-talented best.
But who needs him?
After the Tigers took a 33-7 lead late in the third quarter, UofL fans began glancing at their watches and heading for the exits. The Tigers simply were better at every position except quarterback, and even that was pretty much a draw, considering the incredible Watson impersonation turned in by junior Kelly Bryant.
Bryant accounted for 316 yards passing to Jackson's 317. He lost the rushing battle, gaining only 27 yards to Jackson's 116, but that was only because Clemson’s offense is balanced while UofL’s is scattershot. The Cardinal rushing game, if you want to call it that, accounted for a measly 64 net yards.
But this game wasn’t about the skilled players’ stats. As is the case with most football games, it was about the play in the trenches, and, simply put, Clemson dominated on both sides of the ball. As an old coach -- it might have been Clemson icon Frank Howard -- once said, "Football is a simple game; you just try to knock down the other guy more than he knocks down you."
Unlike Bryant, whose offensive line gave him time to sift through his options, Jackson was always was moving out of the pocket, throwing on the run or tucking the ball to see how many Tiger paws he could elude. The Tigers’ offensive linemen -- especially Taylor Hearns -- are equally good at pass and run blocking, and their defensive lineman have the quickness and size to run over and around inept blockers, such as the ones who are currently trying in protect Jackson at UofL.
Although Jackson is the best one-man show in the college game, football is a team sport. Put Jackson behind Clemson’s blockers and he might average a zillion total yards per game. He also would have a running game to relieve the pressure, which would certainly be a novelty for him.
Nevertheless, the Cards still had a chance late in the third quarter. With his team trailing 19-7, Jackson took off on one of his patented runs, faking defenders out of their shoes as he dodged, darted, faked and slipped tackles. He got into the red zone before he was stopped and the crowd, suddenly awake, was rocking the place.
But wait. Oh, no. A flag. Tight end Charles Standberry, who was not even in the play, was caught holding. The play was called back and the Cards were penalized 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, Jackson hit Clemson’s Dorien O’Daniel in the numbers and he took it into the end zone.
In a matter of seconds, the Cards had gone from what could have been a 19-14 deficit into a 26-7 black pit. For the umpteenth time, repeat after me: "You can’t make stupid mistakes against a team as good as Clemson and expect to win."
So what now?
Well, the ESPN GameDay crew had packed up its trucks and heaven only knows when they’ll visit The Ville again. The shine is off the season and the air has left the hype balloon. The next two games are against Kent State and Murray State at home. Each is generating about as much buzz as a comatose bumblebee.
But believe it or not, those two games could very well define both this Cardinal team and its fan base.
The players have a choice. They can either spend the rest of the season going through the motions and not much caring, or they can use the Clemson whipping as a catalyst for harder work and much more improvement. A very good record and a very nice bowl trip still are not out of the question if the players want them badly enough.
As for the fans, they can either be front-runners and half-fill the stadium or they can fill the seats when their team needs them the most. It’s easy to be a fan when GameDay is in town. The challenge is when a Kent State is visiting for a game that nobody outside of Cards’ country cares about.
If Clemson keeps playing as it did against UofL, the Tigers almost certainly are on a collision course with Alabama for a third straight title-game showdown. Coach Dabo Swinney and his staff are proving to be as could as they come in recruiting, teaching and motivating. Rarely can a team lose a player as valuable as Watson and not miss a beat. But so far Clemson is doing it. In fact, Bryant’s Heisman stock now is probably higher than Jackson’s in the minds of many voters around the nation.
So Clemson didn’t have to take Jackson’s trophy. It has a quarterback who might well have one of his own by season’s end. The Tigers also didn’t take the Johnny Unitas statue, the Cardinal bird mascot, or the dance team, but only because, even in Clemson, there are some merciful limits to pillorying and plundering.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.
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