Much of the college football universe on Saturday was focused on a place called Papa John’s Stadium in a southern city better known for horse racing. Defending national champion Clemson‘s first road test was holding off Louisville, a challenger to the Tigers in the Atlantic Coast Conference race.
What in the world of Ara Parseghian and Woody Hayes is going on here?
Well, a few things: 1) The nation’s population has shifted to the South; 2) Thoroughbreds like Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and Clemson counterpart Kelly Bryant have replaced the smashmouth style that was played in the Cold War era with Hall-of-Famers like Jim Brown and Dick Butkus; and 3) The champs have more horses surrounding Bryant than the Cardinals have around the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner.
Bryant led No. 3-ranked Clemson to a 47-21 victory over No. 14 Louisville. The Tigers did it top to bottom with a roster that ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called “an embarrassment of riches.”
He said it as true freshman backup running back Travis Etienne broke off an impressive 81-yard burst for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Herbstreit added that the Clemson coaches tell him Etienne has been breaking off similar runs in practice against the Tigers’ starters – the same guys that frustrated Jackson.
The ACC opener for both schools lifted to Tigers to 3-0 overall and 1-0 in the Atlantic Division. Louisville dropped to 2-1 and 0-1; the Cards face an uphill climb for division title hopes and a shot at the ACC championship game.
Louisville finished with 443 total yards, but those weren’t the numbers that told the game’s story. Clemson’s offense countered with 613 yards and the Tigers sacked Jackson four times.
“We completed each other well tonight,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor on the field after the game. “It was a great job by our offense, some big-time plays from special teams and obviously huge plays on the defense with a pick six. It was a dominant win on the road, and those are hard to come by.”
It’s not a leap to say Clemson’s defense dented Jackson’s repeat Heisman hopes, while Bryant put himself on a path to joining the conversation.
The game wasn’t billed as Jackson vs. Bryant, but Bryant came out on top despite Jackson’s higher total yards, 367 to 342. Jackson threw for 317 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 64 without a TD. Bryant threw for 316 yards and ran for 26 and two touchdowns.
On Jackson’s first two possessions, Louisville went three-and-out. On Bryant’s first possession, he directed a 10-play, 79-yard drive he finished with an 8-yard scoring run.
“Every week he’s answered all the questions,” Swinney said. “This was a big stage for him, coming in here for his first road trip. He made some big-time plays; he made some plays on the scrambles when they bottled us up; just an outstanding job. I can’t say enough about the heart of this guy and how he’s leading us right now.”
Louisville was still in the game at halftime, trailing 19-7. But thoughts of a shootout repeat from a year ago soon dissipated.
Clemson outscored Louisville 14-0 in the third quarter. Outside linebacker Dorian O’Daniel returned a Jackson interception 44 yards for a touchdown. Bryant scored on a 1-yard run to cap an 11-play, 66-yard drive. The rout was on at 33-7 with 2:16 remaining in the third.
Clemson began the season ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll largely because the Tigers had to replace quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Tigers have climbed to No. 3 through the 2-0 start.
Clemson isn’t No. 1 yet with No. 1 Alabama (3-0) and No. 2 Oklahoma (3-0) both winning again Saturday, but the Tigers seem well-positioned to defend their national title.
Follow Tom Shanahan’s FanRag Sports stories on Twitter @shanny4055.