The Clemson Insider handed out grades to each position group following third-ranked Clemson’s 42-36 victory over fourth-ranked Louisville on Saturday night.
Few people would have predicted Clemson could turn the ball over five times and defeat Louisville. Even fewer would have been onboard with that prediction knowing four of them would come from Deshaun Watson. The Heisman candidate wasn’t nearly at his peak performance level on the national stage, throwing for 306 yards and five touchdowns and adding 91 rushing yards on 14 carries. His completion percentage really wasn’t bad, either, as he connected on 20 of his 31 throws (64.5 percent). The three interceptions and one fumble, though, were critical. To be fair, one of the picks wasn’t Watson’s fault, but he still struggled in the vertical passing game and made some ill-advised throws at unnecessary times.
Running Backs: A
Much like the quarterback position, only one player factored into the equation at running back on Saturday: Wayne Gallman. The junior, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Saturday, rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. His 24-yard touchdown run in the second quarter came at a key time in the game. Additionally, Gallman’s role in pass protection is often overlooked, but he was very good in that area once again.
Wide Receivers: A-
A plethora of players came up big in this position group. Deon Cain caught two touchdown passes of more than 30 yards. Mike Williams scored a touchdown and ended up with a team-best five receptions. Trevion Thompson converted a huge third down late in the ballgame that kept a Clemson drive alive. Ray Ray McCloud was effective as a decoy and an asset in the horizontal passing game. Then there was Artavis Scott, whose relative absence has been the subject of much consternation among fans. Not only did he haul in a five-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half, his 77-yard kickoff return put a jolt of energy into the Clemson sideline and the stadium that allowed the Tigers to make a late comeback against Louisville.
Tight Ends: A-
There are seemingly always some alignment or protection issues prevalent within this group, but Jordan Leggett’s contributions in the passing game were helpful. That was particularly true in the latter stages of the game, when he scampered 31 yards for a touchdown on a catch-and-run drag route across the middle, then snagged a two-point conversion on a jump pass from Watson. Leggett got the vast majority of available snaps in the game, if not all of them, meaning his work must have been satisfactory to the coaching staff.
Offensive Line: B+
The only real concern remaining with this group is in the short-yardage run game, and even that wasn’t front-and-center tonight. There were a couple of moments where that inability to get the key yard played a role, but for the most part, this position group handled a salty defensive front fairly well. Watson had both running and throwing lanes for most of the evening. Procedure penalties or holding calls didn’t derail offensive drives. The offensive line avoided the limelight for most of Saturday’s game, which is never a bad thing.
Defensive Line: A
The scheme is very specific when dealing with a freak like Lamar Jackson that can turn even the slightest missed assignment into a big play. The interior defensive line pushed the pocket inward from in front of Jackson, while the ends created a wall outside of him so he could not easily escape trouble. As a group, the defensive linemen combined to sack Jackson four times. They totaled 6.5 tackles for loss and a whopping seven quarterback hurries. Carlos Watkins’ tipped pass forced Louisville’s offense into its only punting situation of the second half, and his fumble recovery led to a Clemson score in the second quarter.
Honestly, as long as this group didn’t look completely foolish, it would’ve earned a very high grade. That’s how good Jackson is. It sounds crazy given that Jackson accounted for 457 yards of offense, but Clemson’s linebackers played about as well as they could against that caliber of opponent. Ben Boulware amassed 18 tackles, including three for loss, and a sack. Kendall Joseph added seven tackles and two quarterback pressures. Dorian O’Daniel totaled five tackles. After chasing around one of the most impressive individual athletes in college football history all night, this group deserves the highest of grades.
Defensive Backs: A-
Again, there’s some leniency here. Covering receivers in the modern era of college football is tough enough, but it gets even tougher when the quarterback can extend plays for a small eternity. Holding and pass interference penalties came at the worst times for Clemson’s defense, but for the most part, the secondary held up well in a situation that could have easily proved overwhelming. Jadar Johnson had seven tackles, a PBU, and a gorgeous sprawling interception in the first half. Van Smith had 13 solo tackles (16 total) and Marcus Edmond added 11, including the one that essentially ended the game on Clemson’s sideline as Louisville was bearing down on the goal line.
Special Teams: A
Did Clemson actually win the special teams battle? It sounds like a pipe dream, but that is, in fact, what we witnessed in Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Scott’s kick return ushered in one of the biggest momentum swings in the contest, with Clemson down by eight in the fourth quarter and its offense barely registering a heartbeat. The return game didn’t give the Tigers any additional issues. Andy Teasdall pinned the Cardinals inside their own 20 three times and averaged 42.8 yards on five punts. In addition, Greg Huegel made all of his extra point attempts in the game.