LOUISVILLE, KY. – All-Planet Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had a few of those 2016 Heisman Trophy, 2017 Heisman-worthy moments, juking his way along the sideline and hanging tough in the pocket to deliver strikes down the field.
But Clemson’s immovable objects on defense stood out Saturday night with better ingredients in a 47-21 rout at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Dorian O’Daniel and pals dictated odd Louisville play-calling, enough to give Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant extra opportunities to outshine Jackson.
After three quarters, Clemson had a 33-7 lead, the game was over and Bryant had 305 yards of total offense (he finished with 342) to Jackson’s 180 (he padded his stats for 371).
Clemson saw this coming from Bryant.
Head coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday night the coaches hoped Bryant could carry his excellent spring into summer, his summer into the season and his good game against Auburn into a tough Louisville road environment.
Jeff Scott, Clemson’s offensive co-coordinator said Bryant showed up in summer camp “a different player” than he was during the spring.
“I think we noticed pretty early that he had really taken that next step and really used that off-season to improve,” Scott said. “There’s been a quiet confidence among our staff, among the offense, with Kelly.”
The game started with that slugger vs. boxer heavyweight feel, fitting for the hometown of The Greatest and his greatest ring legacy. Flashy Muhammad Ali of Louisville fought tough South Carolina-born Joe Frazier three times, splitting the first two bouts and surviving The Thrilla in Manilla of 1975.
The Thrilla at The ‘Ville was the ultimate rematch in this Jackson vs. Clemson thing, No. 3 Tigers vs. No. 14 Cardinals. A third fight is unlikely; Jackson looks like first-round NFL draft material as a junior.
For Clemson after one of the most impressive road wins in school history, it’s a promising path to the ACC Atlantic Division title – the ticket to an ACC Championship Game berth, the gateway to more College Football Playoff fun.
For Louisville, it’s not over. It’s just a lot of heavy lifting and scoreboard watching from here to December.
Or, a lot like Jackson-Clemson I. The Tigers’ 42-36 victory early last year shaped the ACC championship and College Football Playoff picture.
Clemson was off and running toward a national title.
Louisville, its ultimate dream crushed, was listless in some late-season games down the stretch, losses to Houston, Kentucky and LSU. Jackson probably lost his shot at a second Heisman Trophy.
“The offense did a horrible job,” Jackson said. “It’s on all of us.”
Here we go again, with Bryant playing the role of Deshaun Watson.
“He’ll be better than me!” Watson tweeted Saturday night after a Bryant touchdown pass.
Bryant and Watson
The six-story Muhammad Ali Center stands prominently on Louisville’s Ohio River waterfront, between the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory and the classic Galt House hotel. More than a museum – the Respect Pavilion, for instance – it’s well worth the $12 admission price.
Ali was on hand at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 2015 when Clemson edged Louisville, 20-17. Louisville still uses Ali inspirational bits on the scoreboard to fire up the crowd and the Cardinals.
But as Ali knew as well anyone in sports history, it takes a lot to dethrone a champ.
It takes more when the national champ returns with another dual-threat, big-play quarterback.
And it’s almost always about the quarterbacks: Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, vs. Watson, the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, last year; the reigning Heisman winner vs. a poised junior from Calhoun Falls this time.
“You must be encouraged by Deshaun Watson’s success,” Jackson was asked before the 2016 season started.
“Never watch him,” Jackson said. “I only watch defenses.”
And you know he spent extra time this summer studying Clemson, the way Louisville’s coaching staff worked overtime in August of 2016 preparing for Florida State in what turned out to be a 63-20 rout exactly a year ago this weekend.
“We were focused on the Florida State game,” Jackson said. “We came out angry and we were a lot more focused. We came out there (Saturday night) and wanted to show everybody what Louisville is all about and we didn’t show it at all.”
Rivalries never retire
That’s part of what gave Jackson vs. Clemson II the ABC prime-time, GameDay juice. The other half, of course, was defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ Tiger defense. It was famously ferocious even before racking up 11 sacks in a 14-6 smothering of Auburn last week.
But for all of Jackson’s early heroics this year, Louisville’s own defense in its first two games allowed 31.5 points per, 13th in the ACC. It was clear that Clemson’s offensive co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott were determined to set an aggressive tone, and that they have complete confidence in Bryant.
By halftime, Bryant had more than doubled Jackson’s total offense for the game (273 yards to 130).
It says “The Ville” in giant red and white letters atop the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium scoreboard, but The Thrilla In The ‘Ville struggled to live up to the hype.
Unlike boxers, however, college football rivalries never retire.
Which means the rematch next year at Death Valley will be all about Louisville trying to figure out a way to stop Kelly Bryant.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff