Tigers hurdle the trap game

Clemson quarterback D3eshaun Watson (4) throws a pass under pressure form Louisville's Sheldon Rankins (98) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Dabo Swinney emerged from the Clemson locker room late Thursday night with that big smile of his.

“Never a doubt,” the Clemson head coach said to anyone within shouting distance. “Y’all weren’t worried, were you?”

Clemson still doesn’t still doesn’t look like an authentic heavyweight. Too many misfires on offense. The defense has yet to prove itself against good players.

But the No. 11 Tigers in the hometown of boxing champ Muhammad Ali, and with The Greatest on hand, showed why they have a puncher’s chance against any team in the country.

Clemson (3-0) escaped its first trip to Louisville, leaving Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium with a 20-17 ACC victory. Next up are back-to-back home games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

While those are tougher tests than Wofford, Appalachian State and callow Louisville (0-3), there is something admirable about Clemson’s 32-game win streak against unranked teams dating to a 2011 loss at N.C. State. Swinney and his staff have been as good as anyone at consistently motivating distracted young men.

This time they did it under the kind of duress a contender needs.

“Coming into this game everybody kept asking me, ‘What do you know about your team?’” Swinney said. “I said, ‘Well, the only thing I can tell you is we’ve shown up and we’ve competed our butts off but we haven’t faced any adversity.’ And we go on the road and we find out what kind of mental toughness we have.

“We had enough adversity in this game for the whole year, the whole season.”

Injured tackles Joe Gore and Jake Fruhmorgen, a blown lead, dumb penalties, a 100-yard kickoff return.

Across the street at Churchill Downs, a horse has to win the Kentucky Derby before there is Triple Crown talk. Swinney welcomed 15-0 backstretch chatter before the Tigers were in the paddock.

Some of the reasons were on display Thursday night:

Quarterback Deshaun Watson showed flashes of Heisman contender brilliance.

Clemson depth produced contributors as deep as Hunter Renfrow, a redshirt freshman walk-on receiver who scored the first touchdown.

Wayne Gallman (139 yards) looks like a throwback “bell cow” Clemson running back.

After almost a full three quarters of wide receivers struggling to get open, new offensive co-coordinator Tony Elliott adjusted with three big passes to tight ends — Jordan Leggett, Stanton Seckinger (Porter-Gaud High School) and Leggett again for a go-ahead touchdown.

A defense rebuilt since last season simply out-slugged Louisville.

“(Clemson) is a very good defensive football team,” Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino said. “They’re good against the run. They’re smart.”

That allows the Tigers to mask weaknesses while gaining strength for the ranked opponents ahead.

And there is much room for improvement.

Too many times, Watson, by design or execution, was unable to find a second option when Plan A wasn’t available.

But the Clemson defense kept giving him chances. The Tigers were stout against the run and applied pocket pressure with or without tight man-to-man coverage as applied by cornerback Mackensie Alexander and friends.

Agreed, Clemson hasn’t been playing the slickest offenses in college football history, but they have come to play for six halves in a row.

Swinney and everyone else in the Clemson traveling party knew a trip to Louisville was a challenge, just for the newness of it. Coaches like familiarity, the same Saturday routine, the same hotels.

A Thursday night game against a revenge-minded, Petrino-coached team in a loud place a few miles and a mere Ohio River crossing from Indiana and Big Ten country isn’t on those old ACC brochures.

And 3-0 is an entire autumn and holiday season away from 15-0, with 4-0 requiring some much heavier lifting.

The Tigers get that.

“We’re not a great team,” Swinney said, “but we’re improving.”

Just enough to build some serious sizzle into the build-up to Notre Dame.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff