Tigers dodge bullet

Clemson's Wayne Gallman (9) breaks through a hole in the Louisville defense during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Steely resolve, and the luck of the kickers, have Clemson right where the 11th-ranked team in the country hoped it’d be entering September.

The Tigers hung on to top Louisville in a defensive slugfest for the second consecutive year, prevailing 20-17 Thursday night for their first road win of the year – a triumph that precedes a 15-day break from contests and a potentially program-defining three-game homestand.

“It feels great to make a statement,” junior defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “We’ve got a lot of people doubting us still, and probably still after this game, but we know where we need to be, and we’re looking forward to Notre Dame.”

Clemson (3-0, 1-0 ACC) has now won 41 straight games when leading after three quarters. This one was a little more precarious, with a 17-10 edge going into the fourth frame and the Cardinals in field-goal range to send the game to overtime in the final minute.

“I’ve been around for a long time, and I was a part of games where we didn’t win those in the fourth quarter with a lead,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “You’re not going to win every game by a big margin. The key is getting in the fourth quarter with a lead, and we’ve got the mental toughness to give us a chance to win.”

Said head coach Dabo Swinney: “That’s a credit to our heart.”

Wayne Gallman, a blossoming sophomore tailback, and the Clemson defense have developed to a level where quarterback Deshaun Watson doesn’t need to be Superman for the Tigers to take on all comers.

“It’s time for us to step out. The whole team can play,” Gallman said. “We want to put the team on our back, and I feel like I need to do that.”

Gallman had 139 yards on 24 carries, the third-largest load of his career, seizing that workhorse role he’s craved.

“Wayne was running hard, he was finding it, and we didn’t want to take it out of his hands,” Elliott said. “I think the other guys on the sideline recognize that, and they were supporting him and pushing him.”

“Wayne Gallman was the difference in the game,” Swinney said, “along with the guys up front.”

Greg Huegel, the Tigers’ freshman walk-on taking over for the suspended Ammon Lakip, was 2-for-2 on his field goals. John Wallace, the Cardinals’ senior, was 1-for-2, and that was the difference.

Louisville quarterback Kyle Bolin had the Cardinals driving with the hope of kicking a game-tying field goal, but Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd dragged Bolin’s knee to the ground as the clock ticked away and the Cardinals out of timeouts. Bolin’s last-second throw to the end zone was intercepted by safety Jadar Johnson.

Former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Jordan Leggett caught touchdown passes from Watson, who was not at his sharpest but good enough to win: 21-for-30, 199 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs through the air. Watson also had 54 rushing yards.

“It’s hard to win on the road, especially in this environment,” said Watson, who started and finished a game for the first time in his college career. “It really doesn’t matter how I play, as long as we get the W, and that’s what we did.”

The Tigers’ defense suffocated the Cardinals for most the game, holding Louisville to 272 total yards.

“I feel like we dominated with our front seven,” Lawson said. “We knew this was going to be a defensive game, and we had to create momentum to get the offense going.”

However, Traveon Samuel’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave Louisville life in the fourth quarter.

“It’s never perfect,” Swinney said, “but if you got one more (point) then they do, that’s all that matters.”

On the Tigers’ opposite sideline is a heartbroken host. The Cardinals (0-3, 0-1) have fallen three times by a combined total of 13 points. But they were buoyed by 55,396 fans - the third-largest crowd to watch a game at Louisville’s home field.

“We’ve lost some really close games,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities, we’re just not getting it done right now.”

It came down to the wire, and Clemson did not blink.

“I think we answered a lot of questions tonight about perseverance and mental toughness,” Swinney said. “Tonight was a ton of adversity. Some of it was self-inflicted, some of it was them making some plays. But it’s about finding a way to win.”

Clemson now has 16 days to prepare for No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0) at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 3. The Fighting Irish host No. 14 Georgia Tech (2-0) Saturday; the Yellow Jackets visit Clemson Oct. 10.