A big-time match-up with huge implications lived up to it’s billing as Deshaun Watson and #5 Clemson defeated Lamar Jackson and #3 Louisville 42-36 in Death Valley. This game should be regarded as one of the top games of the season, if not the best, as both quarterbacks faced their toughest challenges of the year.
Heading into the match-up, all the hype surrounded Louisville star and Heisman Trophy front-runner Lamar Jackson, as he accounted for 25 TDs total before this week’s game. On the other hand, Deshaun Watson, who came into the 2016 season as arguably the best player in college football and a Heisman favourite, struggled in the opening weeks, before managing to find some momentum last week against Georgia Tech.
The opening quarter saw both teams testing out each other, with Louisville especially struggling early due to the crowd noise at Death Valley. The second quarter saw a Clemson blitz as they scored 28 points and went out to a 28-10 lead at halftime. However, Louisville managed to claw their way back by forcing a couple of turnovers, while Lamar Jackson managed to find his groove and show why he’s the Heisman favourite. The Cardinals grabbed the lead at the start of the 4th quarter with a field goal and extended it out to 36-28 thanks to you guessed it, Lamar Jackson. This occurred after Watson had a terrible throw picked off by Jaire Alexander, one of the best defensive players tonight. However, Clemson were not out of it as Artavis Scott returned the kickoff for 77 yards, before Watson found his star receiver Mike Williams for the 20-yard score. A huge stand against Jackson gave the Tigers a chance to take the lead, in which the clutch Watson hit his tight end Jordan Leggett for a 31-yard TD with 3:14 remaining in the game. Down 42-36, Jackson used his legs to drive Louisville all the way down to the red zone, where the game was on the line on 4th and 7 from Clemson’s 9-yard line. Clemson’s defense stood tall as wide receiver James Quick was stopped a yard short of the first-down marker, giving Clemson a huge 42-36 win over their ACC rivals.
How big was this game for both teams? From a Heisman standpoint, both Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson were two of the top Heisman candidates heading into this game and a bad game from one could spell the end of his Heisman hopes. Jackson finished with 457 total yards and 3 TDs, throwing one pick, while Watson accounted for 397 yards, 5 TDs and 3 interceptions. Despite the loss, Jackson still has the edge over his fellow Heisman contenders, but the gap seems to be closing between himself and his rivals, led by J.T. Barrett. Watson has finally rejoined the Heisman race following his clutch performance. He wasn’t perfect, as he threw 3 picks, but his composure down the stretch to lead the Tigers from behind will surely be his Heisman moment so far this year.
However, the main reason this game was important was due to the huge implications regarding the College Football Playoff. Since Louisville and Clemson were both ranked #3 and #5 respectively, the loser of this game was sure to have their CFP dreams ruined. Although Clemson came out as the victors, Louisville did nothing wrong to hinder their playoff chances. A 42-36 loss to a side as elite as Clemson will be seen as a good thing for the Cardinals – it just means they’ll have to work harder to convince the College Football Playoff committee. If Clemson and Louisville both win the rest of the games it will look good for Louisville’s resume if their only loss was to their ACC rivals. It’s not rare to see 1-loss team make the playoffs, as Oklahoma, Alabama and Michigan State all made the playoffs with a loss last season. However, there are three obstacles Louisville have to overcome in order to make the playoffs, but only one obstacle is really in their hands. Firstly, Louisville looks good to win out the rest of their schedule, with their only test being #6 Houston on the 18th November (NZT). Houston have one of the top offenses under Tom Herman and should be undefeated by the time the two teams meet. If Louisville can beat Houston and everyone else on their schedule, that’s their job done. Secondly, Clemson will have to win the rest of their games and if they put on a spirited performance like today, they’ll be tough to beat, making Louisville’s chances for the playoff look good. Thirdly, Louisville will have to look better than another conference champion. Two teams from the same conference have never made the playoff, so Louisville will have to hope a champion team from the Big 12, SEC, Big Ten etc. has a weaker resume than they do. It’ll be tough with Alabama, Houston, Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and many others currently unbeaten. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy points out the dilemma the committee may face later in the year:
But if these teams slip up, especially to a weaker side in the FBS, the playoff committee will look at Louisville’s loss to Clemson as more favourable. In Clemson’s case, this win should propel them towards a Top 4 ranking tomorrow and no one seems to be a real test for them the rest of the way, giving them the inside edge for a College Football Playoff spot.
In a game of the year candidate with huge implications, both teams and star quarterbacks did nothing to hurt the chances of gaining top honours. How exciting would it be to see these two teams face off again in the College Football Playoff. Only time will tell.