CLEMSON, S.C. (WDRB) — There won’t be any time for flowery words here in the aftermath of No. 3-ranked Louisville’s heart-wrenching 42-36 loss to No. 5 Clemson in Death Valley Saturday night. It’s 2 a.m. and I’m in a line of brake lights longer than a Trump rally’s traffic in the Deep South.

I am only now seeing a replay of the Cardinals’ final offensive play, in which James Quick took a fourth-down pass from Lamar Jackson in the final minute and was knocked out of bounds meekly instead of diving forward for the one extra yard he needed to keep the Louisville drive alive.

Until now, the only eyes I’ve had on the play have been from Twitter, which means they are bloodshot and full of rage.

The play was a longshot after a false start penalty gave the Cardinals fourth-down and 12 to go with 40 seconds left and a six-point deficit.

But it was necessary after the defense provided barely token resistance on an 8-play, 85-yard Clemson drive that took only 2:43, and turned a 38-36 deficit into a 42-36 lead moments earlier. The Tigers’ 24-yard touchdown pass came on the only third-down play of the drive, on 3rd and 5. A stop there would’ve forced a field goal, and Louisville would’ve needed only a field goal on the other end.

Or, on Clemson’s previous drive, after a long return set it up at the Louisville 23, a hold and field goal instead of a touchdown would’ve changed the dynamic. The Cardinals could've set up for a game-winning field goal. 

But no. Clemson punched it in twice. No matter, given the ball and 3:14 to go 75 yards, Lamar Jackson had his chance to put the exclamation point on his Heisman Trophy inevitability. He may very well have, anyway. He drove Louisville to the Clemson seven-yard line with 40 seconds left. He completed five straight passes and ran for 23 yards to get there.

He then was stopped for no gain and nearly completed a spectacular pass throwing back against the grain to tight end Cole Hikutini. Had he completed that one, I was going to go ahead and make hotel reservations in New York for early December. And Orlando, too, for that matter.

But he didn’t, which gave Louisville that final, fateful fourth down.

You can’t fault the pass. Jackson lofted the ball to Quick near the left sideline. The TV shot of the pass shows that when Quick caught the ball at the 11, he was nine yards from a first down with a lone defender, redshirt junior Marcus Edmond, seven yards away from him and a step to his inside.

“They brought pressure and Lamar knew exactly where to go with the ball,” Petrino said. “We did know when we caught the ball there you had to go run and get the first down, which is really what we wanted to try to do is get the first down. Unfortunately we came up a little short.”

Edmund knew exactly what he had to do. Quick did not. Quick needed to get to the two-yard-line. Edmund knew that he didn’t want Quick getting inside of him, because he thought his help was too far away to keep Quick out of the end zone. That's debatable. Clemson had three defenders closing fast. So Edmund held his line as he moved up to Quick, and the Louisville senior did what the defender hoped, he angled toward the sideline.

Even after four yards, with Quick at the seven and Edmond closing from the four, Quick could’ve tried to make a move to pick up the extra yard. Instead, he stayed on his course for the sideline, and Edmond bumped him out of bounds at the three.

A yard short. Jackson, speaking after the game, said, “I thought he had it. I think he thought he had it.”

Quick’s reaction after the play, in fact, indicated that he was surprised he was short. He pointed his hand forward in a first-down motion.

Edmond knew he was short. Quick wasn’t made available to reporters after the game. Edmond, however, explained exactly what he was doing.

“I was worried about him cutting it inside, so I tried to push him to the outside and make the tackle,” he said. “Like I said, I was just worrying about coming up and making the tackle. And I didn’t want to get juked. I just told myself not to get juked. If I get juked, it’s a touchdown. So what I did was play it inside out, and push him to the sideline and he went to the sideline.”

I go to this length on these sequences for two reasons.

First, because it was the final play of the game, and is likely to go down in Louisville lore along with William Gay jumping offside (at Rutgers, 2006) and Kerry Rhodes dropping the interception (at Miami, 2004) as one of the most painful plays in U of L football history.

My point is not to be critical of Quick. Yes, a receiver has to know where the first down marker is and get there. But no, that lone play didn’t lose the game for Louisville. Which is why I went into Clemson’s two scores before the final play. That play wasn’t the only issue. Quick was Louisville’s leading receiver in the game. Without his efforts, Louisville is nowhere near close to being in position to win. And there were lots of other costly plays. Fans who are on Quick’s case need to back off.

As Clemson ran out the clock on its 19th straight home victory and a win that puts it squarely in the ACC driver’s seat after Florida State lost earlier in the day, fans poured onto the field.

After chafing at the hype and national respect Louisville was getting, Clemson folks paid Louisville plenty of it after the game.

“What an awesome moment to be a part of,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “Just an incredible game. . . . That’s a great football team. They’ve got some creatures over there. That quarterback, he’s something special. . . . I’ve seen enough of them. They’ve got an awesome team.”

Swinney said, as he shook Petrino’s hand after the game, he told him, “You have a great team. Y’all win out.”

Billed as a battle between Heisman front-runners, the defenses instead dueled through a scoreless first quarter.

Then things got interesting. After Louisville took a 7-0 lead, Clemson scored 28 and led 28-10 going into the half, and got the ball to start the second.

On Friday, Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN noted that Louisville had not faced adversity this season. He said, “The thing I’m most anxious to see is how they respond to Death Valley, at night, if they get down. How will they overcome that? Will they be able to overcome that? If they pass this test in this environment against this team, then I think you go from, ‘They’re off to a good start,’ to, ‘Wow, that’s the team to beat.’”

They passed the test. They just didn’t get the win.

Don’t doubt this — Louisville walked through Death Valley and faced its full fury. It faced a Clemson team that got things humming and had every ounce of momentum and a 107-decibel crowd behind it that forced Louisville into false starts on its first two plays and three on its first two series.

The Cardinals were being dominated physically. They had lost their composure. They committed nine penalties for 95 yards in the half. Jackson got angry after Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware had him in a headlock and tried to twist his neck in a pile. Louisville's defense was being shredded. Petrino was unhappy with the officiating and wouldn't even comment on it after the game. Clemson was averaging 11 yards per first-down play.

The only thing that stopped Clemson’s momentum was halftime.

In the locker room, Petrino was trying to put out the fires.

“We wanted to come out and really continue to work hard at running the ball,” Petrino said. “We wanted to get some time so that we could throw it. I thought Lamar did a great job in the second half seeing pressure and distributing the ball. We got our tight ends involved, we got our running backs involved. We made some great runs. Our offensive line did a better job of protection and we did a great job of moving the ball and getting the ball in the end zone.”

A Chucky Williams interception on the second play of the second half gave Louisville the ball at the Clemson 36, and a Cardinal touchdown, Jackson to Quick, made it 28-16.

From that point until Clemson’s big kickoff return, Jackson put on a show. 

He ran for 162 yards on 31 carries, with two touchdowns. He threw for 295 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. His 457 total yards and three touchdowns against the nation’s No. 3 defense should stamp him as legitimate. Yet there’s still a way for him, and the Cardinals, to go.

The Cardinals didn’t play playoff-caliber defense. They couldn’t get pressure on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson often enough. They couldn’t cover Clemson’s receivers.

Give Clemson credit. They turned it over five times against the No. 3 team in the nation and kept battling. They earned the win. They got the game’s key stop, batting down a Lamar Jackson pass on third down to force a three-and-out to set up their final TD drive.

Watson was outstanding. He completed 20 of 31 passes for 306 yards and five touchdowns, with three interceptions. Running back Wayne Gallman carried 16 times for 110 yards and Watson had 14 carries for 91. He’s got to be considered among the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy.

Louisville lost the game, and you can’t get the spoils unless you’re the victor. And it’s too late at night to speculate what this means for the Cardinals’ long-term football fate this season.

But after being rattled and playing poorly in the first half, Louisville proved it belonged on that field, and on this stage. I expect even in defeat, the Cardinals earned a measure of respect.

It’s not what they wanted, nor how they wanted to earn it, but the way they fought back to take the lead earned the praise of their coach, and likely a measure of credibility for his rapidly rising program.

As for the future, Jackson said, “We still have a lot to play for. We don’t plan on losing no more.”

It’s 4:25 a.m. The latest biggest game in Louisville football history is in the books. The Cardinals enjoyed a heady run to the No. 3 national ranking, and the media attention that went with it. Now they’ll drop, and other programs will move into the spotlight. But Louisville shouldn’t drop far, and they might not be out of the spotlight for long.

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