LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Four quick takeaways from Clemson 47, Louisville 21:
1) Kelly Bryant is erasing all doubts. The junior was the best quarterback on the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium turf Saturday, even while sharing it with the defending Heisman Trophy winner. In his first collegiate road start, the guy replacing Deshaun Watson sliced up Louisville for a career-high 316 passing yards, 342 yards of total offense and three total touchdowns. There was a lot of talk during the preseason about Bryant as a placeholder quarterback who got the job based on experience only, and ultimately he would give way to heralded freshman Hunter Johnson. That’s not happening now.
Bryant was dynamic in a low-stress opener against Kent State, got better as the game went along last week against Auburn and then was sharp almost all night against the Cardinals. With an excellent array of wideouts in Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow, Bryant simply needs to be a distributor in the passing game. He’s also a serious dual threat, having rushed for 162 yards and five touchdowns on the season.
2) Lamar Jackson’s bid to repeat as Heisman winner might have met its demise Saturday night. The Louisville quarterback had a brilliant start to the season against Purdue and North Carolina, but this was a different beast. Jackson was unsettled and inaccurate passing the ball much of the night, as Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables brought various blitzes and disguised coverages expertly to keep Jackson guessing.
After 485 yards against the Boilermakers and 525 against the Tar Heels, Jackson produced 381 total yards against Clemson and led only three scoring drives – and almost all of his success came in garbage time when Clemson had taken its foot off the gas. On a day when Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield further established his credentials and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph became a prime contender, Jackson joined UCLA’s Josh Rosen in taking a damaging loss.
With Bobby Petrino surprisingly not using breakout running back Malik Williams as a weapon for the first three quarters, everything fell on Jackson’s shoulders. It didn’t go well. Louisville’s biggest problem was an overmatched defense, and Jackson had a 50-yard run called back by penalty at a key juncture. But he never came close to taking over the game, and certainly didn’t push Clemson to the brink of defeat the way he did last year in Death Valley. The pick-six he served up the third quarter – his first interception of the season – made it 26-7 and essentially ended the game.
3) Clemson has Louisville’s number, now more than ever. The Tigers are 4-0 against the Cardinals since Louisville came into the Atlantic Coast Conference. This was the first one that wasn’t close. Clemson’s victories the three previous years were by a total of 15 points, and the outcome was in doubt late in all three. But this time around, the Tigers outplayed the Cards all night, sucking the energy out of a blackout crowd after a full day of ESPN “College GameDay” buzz. Clemson outgained Louisville by 180 yards, owning the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
4) After beating Auburn and Louisville in successive weeks, the College Football Playoff path is clearing up nicely for the defending national champions. A trip to Virginia Tech on Sept. 30 will be interesting, and an Oct. 7 home game against unbeaten Wake Forest now looks like a bigger challenge than it did in August. If Florida State struggles to replace injured quarterback Deondre Francois, the much-anticipated meeting in Clemson on Nov. 11 could be a Tigers walkover. At this point, Dabo Swinney’s team would have to play its way out of the bracket. Right now they’re easily in.