In a game full of momentum swings, Artavis Scott provided the biggest one.
At a moment when the prospects of a win appeared bleak for third-ranked Clemson against No. 4 Louisville on Saturday night, Scott injected new life into the Tigers with a critical play on special teams that helped them to a comeback, 42-36 win in Death Valley.
With Clemson down by eight points near the eight-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Scott received a kickoff and returned it 77 yards to Louisville’s 23-yard line.
After trailing by as much as 18 points, Louisville had just scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter as part of 26 unanswered points to take a 36-28 lead. Louisville’s offense was rolling, while Clemson’s offense had been stagnant the entire second half, totaling just 95 yards on 18 plays across five drives before Scott’s return.
Everything changed after it, though.
Two plays after the return, Deshaun Watson hooked up with Mike Williams for a 20-yard touchdown pass that cut the Tigers’ deficit to two points. Following the reception, Clemson forced Louisville to go three-and-out and punt for the first time in the second half.
Then, Clemson took over, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 31-yard pass from Watson to tight end Jordan Leggett, and Clemson’s defense sealed the win with a goal-line stand in the final moments.
“All we needed was a spark and that was the spark that we needed,” Scott said after the game. “Once we got in that field position, we knew we were going to take over the game. They had the momentum, and after you make a big play like that the momentum changes, so it was good for us.”
Scott has split the primary kickoff return duties with freshman Tavien Feaster, but Clemson sent Scott out in the late stages, and it paid off.
“We popped that one when it counted,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We’ve been working hard on that unit. We’ve been due for that, and what a huge play in the game.”
Scott said he just needed three seconds to make it happen.
“I just told them, ‘Just hold up for three seconds and I can do the rest by myself,’” Scott said. “That’s what they did. Great opportunity and great blocking for me, and I just knew I had to hit it.”
The junior from Clearwater, Fla., corralled the kickoff in the end zone, made a couple of cuts near the 25-yard line, broke a couple of tackles and was off to the races. Louisville kicker Blanton Creque was the last line of defense, and he was able to force Scott out of bounds.
The return was the longest by a Clemson player since 2011, when Sammy Watkins went 89 yards on a kickoff return at Maryland.
“It was great,” Watson said. “We knew that somebody was going to break one, and ‘Tay told them he wanted to get out there and make a spark. That’s what he did. He’s a playmaker, so he created that big spark, and we got good field position and went in and scored.”
Scott said the potential for a long kickoff return was there all game, he just needed to break one off.
He did, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for Clemson.
“It was there all game,” Scott said. “All we had to do was just hit it. That’s all we had to do, and we did a good job of doing that.”