CLEMSON, S.C. -- Lamar Jackson shed one tackle, spun outside of the outstretched arms of Carlos Watkins and sidestepped past linebacker Kendall Joseph before unleashing a ball into the end zone. A sold-out Death Valley Stadium held its breath as the ball hit the ground and no flags were spotted. There was as much exasperation as elation that Jackson hadn't found the end zone for a fourth time.
After a false start penalty, Clemson's defense had to make one more stand. Jackson tossed it to James Quick in the flat on fourth down in one-on-one coverage. Instead of cutting inside, Quick darted for the sideline where he was ruled out of bounds just short of the first down and even further from the touchdown Louisville needed to take the lead once again. Clemson won 42-36, fans charged the field, and the Tigers remained kings of the ACC for one more night.
Marcus Edmond, the redshirt junior who made the game-winning stop on Quick, said there was no time to think of the thoughts or the moments. The one-on-one showdown with Quick was just like a drill they run in practice, he said, acknowledging that he contributed one of the "two or three" plays that will ultimately decide any football game of this magnitude.
The response from Clemson's players and coaching staff suggested a calm and their words turned the conversation away from the big picture and back to being 5-0. That steadiness stems from experiences on the biggest stages over the last three seasons. That steadiness helped keep Clemson level during one of the most-anticipated regular season games in program history.
Students started filing in more than an hour before kickoff and never sat down once they claimed their spots for the evening. They danced to the tunes spun by Clemson's in-house DJ and shared memories of other big nights in Death Valley.
"This is 'fourth quarter against Notre Dame' loud," one said.
By many accounts, the build-up for this game matches the hype going into Clemson-Notre Dame last season. That game was held in the midst of historic rainfall and after the Governor of South Carolina warned against attending the contest in inclement weather. It was after that game that Dabo Swinney shared his "Bring Your Own Guts" speech with the world, and it was after that game that Clemson graduated to national title contender status.
Like that game in the rain, Saturday night's win didn't come easy. But instead of a torrential downpour, Clemson had to overcome a hurricane-like performance from Lamar Jackson.
Jackson led Louisville on a 26-0 run after halftime, running away from tired Clemson defenders that had spent nearly all game on the field trying to chase down the fleet-footed quarterback. Louisville's offense totaled 586 yards with Jackson accounting for 295 passing yards, 162 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. The sold-out crowd that was dancing between downs earlier in the night began to leak energy, it was like Jackson not only wore down Clemson's defense but the 70,000-plus in attendance as well.
Tigers QB Deshaun Watson stuffed the stat sheet (306 passing yards, 91 rushing yards, five passing touchdowns, three interceptions), but the most exciting and impressive plays from the 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist came in quick bursts. In a marathon game that ended after midnight on the East Coast, it didn't feel like Watson ever got a chance to dominate because he didn't spend much time on the field. It didn't help that Clemson turned the ball over five times (three on him) and failed to force a punt after halftime until the mid-fourth quarter.
Still, by winning, Clemson retains its spot at the top of the conference and near the top of college football.
Louisville could have all-but-clinched the ACC's Atlantic Division with a wins against the Tigers and Seminoles; now Dabo and Deshaun are back in the driver's seat.
Saturday night's contest was an incredible spotlight performance for Jackson, a true force of nature, but it was also a tribute to the resiliency of a title-worthy Clemson team that may be just now rounding into form.