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Three and Out: Clemson survives Louisville in disjointed ACC opener

Clemson opened ACC play with a win, defeating Louisville on the road despite a late charge from the Cardinals. On a night when Deshaun Watson wasn’t Heisman-caliber, Wayne Gallman picked up the slack for the Tigers.

No. 11 Clemson opened ACC play with a 20–17 road win at Louisville on Thursday. Here are three thoughts from the Tigers’ victory:

1. Deshaun Watson and Clemson struggled to land a knockout punch

Clemson ventured to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium as the 11th-ranked team in the country. But the Tigers didn’t look the part, instead allowing a pesky Louisville squad to hang around for far too long. And yes, some of that blame falls on stud quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson made a number of questionable decisions on Thursday night. In the first quarter Louisville linebacker James Burgess picked off a floated Watson pass on Clemson’s first series. In the third period Watson’s second interception—this time on an ill-advised deep ball to Cardinals corner Shaq Wiggins—led to a Louisville touchdown, one that gave the Cardinals a brief 10–7 lead. Then finally, with less than seven minutes to play and Clemson holding a 20–17 lead, Watson halted a key drive when he underthrew a pass on third down. That’s the kind of pass Heisman-caliber players make.

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The Tigers were forced to hit the road after a short week of practice, having played Appalachian State last Saturday. So perhaps fatigue was expected from this team. But if Clemson hopes to survive its next few weeks, which include consecutive games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, this roster and its highly touted quarterback will have to put together four full quarters of effort.

2. Wayne Gallman could be a huge weapon for the Tigers’ offense

Much is made of Watson’s impact on Clemson’s offense, and rightfully so. But Gallman could emerge as an equally important piece of the Tigers’ puzzle if he builds on his big game against Louisville.

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The sophomore gashed the Cardinals for 139 yards on 24 carries, or 5.8 yards per carry. On a fourth-quarter drive that ended with a Clemson field goal to push its lead to 20–10, Gallman chipped in three big runs to keep the drive alive. He was a perfect complement to Watson’s passing attack during key drives.

A stable running game can help take pressure off any quarterback, especially Watson, who must pick and choose his runs after tearing his ACL last year. Gallman could fit that bill. He had 769 rushing yards for the Tigers last season; through three games in 2015, the sophomore has already run for 310 yards and three scores. 

3. Louisville is reeling, but it’s not beyond repair

Louisville has been one of college football’s more successful programs in recent history, winning at least nine games in each of the last three seasons. But Thursday’s loss to Clemson dropped the Cardinals to 0–3 for the first time since 1984.

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Coach Bobby Petrino’s program kicked off 2015 with one of the more challenging opening slates. In its first three games Louisville has faced two conference favorites (Auburn and Clemson) and a Houston squad on the rise. But the Cardinals also lost all three contests by an average of 3.25 points. That means Louisville could be right on the edge of greatness.

Without a doubt, the Cardinals need fixing. Their offensive line played terribly against Clemson, and their defense allowed the Tigers to reel off 202 yards on the ground. The squad has yet to truly settle on a top quarterback between Kyle Bolin and Lamar Jackson, who have both shown flashes. Yet despite those issues, Louisville stood toe-to-toe with the presumed ACC favorite on Thursday night. Cardinals fans should look on the bright side: This squad still has the potential to surprise in the ACC.