Louisville’s first test of the season was technically two weeks ago against Florida State, but the Cardinals hardly faced any adversity in that contest, rolling to a 43-point victory.
It wasn’t the same in Week 5. On the road against the defending ACC champions from Clemson, Louisville cracked but didn’t break. The Cardinals showed heart to crawl back into the game, but ultimately fell just short, as Clemson held on to win, 42-36, in what could prove to be a winner-take-all battle in the ACC.
When we say short, we mean about one yard short.
On fourth and 12 at Clemson’s 14-yard line with 40 seconds left and down by six, Cardinal quarterback Lamar Jackson found receiver James Quick wide open in the left flat, but he had to run several yards for the first down at the 2. He stepped out of bounds just short of the 3.
Louisville, though, shouldn’t have been in that situation for multiple reasons. For one, it was fourth and 7 until a false start on the Cardinals’ offensive line pushed them back five yards. Perhaps Jackson would have converted there if the line to gain was closer.
That was hardly the only mistake of the contest. Every play is critical in a one-possession game, and plays in the second half — particularly the end of the fourth quarter — are always magnified, but Louisville will look back at the first half of Saturday’s clash with a lot of regret.
In the first 30 minutes, the Cardinals gave the ball away three times, allowed four sacks and committed nine penalties, including two false start fouls to begin the first series of the night, and another one later in the first quarter.
Although that’s a disaster for most teams, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino probably would have been able to live with those mistakes if it weren’t for the fourth Clemson touchdown of the half. The Cardinals kicked a field goal with just 37 seconds remaining in the second quarter, shaving their deficit to 11 (21-10).
However, Clemson roared down the field in five plays and 32 seconds. Helped by a Louisville pass interference penalty, the Tigers extended their lead to 18 at the half, which was especially crushing due to the fact Clemson was starting the second half with the ball. Two of the other three Tiger scores in the first 30 minutes were off Cardinal turnovers.
To Louisville’s credit, it didn’t quit. The Cardinals’ defense forced a turnover on the first possession of the second half and finally gave quarterback Lamar Jackson great field position. Louisville quickly scored, which started a barrage of 26 straight Cardinal points. Fueled by three Clemson second-half turnovers, Louisville had an eight-point lead with under eight minutes to play.
Big plays, like the takeaways the Tigers had in the first half, led to a Clemson comeback. Artavis Scott returned a kickoff 77 yards to the Louisville 23, and Clemson scored a touchdown just two plays later. After a Cardinal punt, which was the only possession UL didn’t score on in the second half, DeShaun Watson led the Tigers downfield for another touchdown.
If Louisville had mustered a drive on its second-to-last possession when it still had the lead (36-34), perhaps the outcome would have been different. If the Cardinals didn’t dig themselves such a huge hole after a bad first half, particularly in the final 37 seconds when they led Watson go down the gridiron, this result could have been very different.
Instead, Petrino’s squad is faced with a fair amount of what-ifs. The Cardinals showed a lot of resolve Saturday, and they certainly have plenty left to play for, but Louisville must now hope Clemson loses two ACC games or the playoff committee accepts two ACC teams in order to have a shot at the national title.
The Cards have been dealt a bad hand, but they didn’t make certain plays at certain times. It’s a rough experience to absorb, but against Houston and the rest of the ACC schedule, Louisville must remember that paying close attention to detail — at every stage of every game — matters.
It certainly did on Saturday night in Death Valley.