Around halftime of Saturday night’s 47–21 Clemson victory over Louisville, former Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson tweeted about his successor, Kelly Bryant. His message: “He will be better than me!”
And although those were big words about a player just three games into his career as a starter, Watson only sounded a little outlandish. After all, Bryant was 22 of 32 for 316 yards and a touchdown against No. 14 Louisville—and he wasn’t the story, not even close.
A year ago, Clemson rode Watson to a title, and even though he finished second to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the Heisman voting, he was considered by many to be the most complete quarterback in the country. Without him, many wondered where the Tigers would fall in the ACC and the national title conversation. Saturday’s performance silenced those questions: Clemson, which entered the day ranked No. 3, is going to contend all year in large part because it fields the best defense in the nation.
Against Louisville, Brent Venables’s unit allowed just 21 first downs and 413 total yards—the bulk of which came in garbage time. The Cardinals didn’t convert a third down in the game’s first half and converted just five on the evening, and Jackson threw an interception that Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel ran back 44 yards for a touchdown. For context, Jackson hadn’t thrown a pick since last November, and Saturday’s was the first pick-six of his career. In two games before facing Clemson this season, he had averaged 383.5 yards passing and 119.5 yards on the ground; against the Tigers, he finished with 317 passing yards and just 64 yards on the ground.
Even more staggering about O’Daniel’s interception was that it was Clemson’s first of the season. In two games, the Tigers had established themselves as one of the best defenses in college ball and defeated then-No. 13 Auburn without needing a rash of turnovers to get the job done.
Clemson’s defense set the tone from the start, holding Louisville to two consecutive three-and-outs to open the game, and throughout the night, the defensive line was as elite as advertised, applying pressure over and over again merely by rushing four men. Louisville’s offensive line has struggled to protect Jackson, and Clemson leads all FBS teams in sacks since the start of 2016, but the Tigers didn’t seal the win by pounding the Cardinals’ premier playmaker. They sacked him just twice and made their mark instead by applying constant pressure and disruption along the line of scrimmage. O’Daniel, a fifth-year senior, continued his breakout season a week after logging 14 tackles at Auburn, and he has the look of yet another household name in the making among so many others on Clemson’s defense.
On Louisville’s final drive of the game, the Cardinals had a chance to score a final garbage time touchdown. With 1:50 to go, the quarterback slung a 78-yard pass to Traveon Samuel, putting Louisville at first and goal from Clemson’s four-yard line. On the Cardinals’ first try at the end zone, Jackson threw an incomplete pass, and on their second, he was stuffed for a loss of a yard. All the while, Venables twitched on Clemson’s sideline, the veins in his neck standing out a degree that indicated a far closer game than this foregone conclusion. When Jackson threw another incomplete pass on third down and then another on fourth, the coordinator jumped and stunted on the sideline as if he’d just won a championship. In reality, his team had just put the lid on a blowout win in Week 3. But it’s that level of rigor that makes Clemson’s defense what it is, not happy to settle with allowing another garbage time score—not happy, perhaps, with anything short of a title.