Though his quarterback had just thrown his third interception of the game, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott was not going to let that effect the way he was going to call the final seven minutes and 52 seconds.
Following Artavis Scott’s 77-yard kick return, which set the third-ranked Tigers up at the Louisville 23-yard line, Elliott stayed aggressive with his play calling. He knew when it came to shaking off bad plays, he had the best quarterback in the business.
Before Scott’s 77-yard return, Deshaun Watson’s last pass was intercepted, setting up a Cardinals’ touchdown that stretched their lead to eight points with just under eight minutes to play. Then Scott returned the ensuing kick 77 yards, which opened up Elliott’s entire playbook and changed the complexion of the game entirely.
“When you flip the field like that, and you are down in the red zone, obviously you feel confident in your kicker that you have at least three points, plus everybody’s defensive philosophy changes a little bit when you get in the red zone,” Elliott said. “Obviously, when you are backed up and the way the flow of the game is you want to make sure you sustain the drive. Whereas down in the red zone you have some specific things you want to get to and you can be a little bit more aggressive.”
Earlier in the game, the Tigers (5-0, 2-0 ACC) found themselves in the same situation and Elliott was true to his philosophy. He called a post to wide receiver Mike Williams, who was open for what looked like a sure touchdown, from the Louisville 15-yard line. However, Watson was off the mark on his throw and threw the ball inside of Williams instead of leading him to the goal post. The result was an interception in the end zone and one of two red zone turnovers for the Tigers overall.
So with a second down-and-seven from the Louisville 20-yard with just over seven minutes to play, Elliott trusted his quarterback, despite his two earlier mistakes, and called the same post-play he had called earlier to Williams.
“I had the confidence to come back with it and say, ‘Deshaun, Yeah you threw the ball inside, but we are going to go at it again because structurally it should work and I have the confidence you can make it.’ The guys went out and they executed it,” Elliott said.
They executed it to perfection as Watson hit Williams in stride around the five-yard line and then the 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior did the rest to get into the end zone for six points, cutting the Cardinals lead to two points with 7:05 to play in the game.
Now with his quarterback back in the flow of the game, and playing with extreme confidence, it was Watson’s time to shine. Still trailing by two points, the Tigers got the ball back at their own 15-yard line with 6:11 showing on the clock.
This is where having a quarterback like Watson pays off. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said earlier in the week that Watson could throw three touchdown passes and never be too high or he could throw three interceptions and was never too low.
On Saturday he did both, but when the Tigers took over the ball late in the fourth quarter and had 85 yards to go for the winning score, Watson was just Deshaun Watson. He was not caught up in the moment. He had already shrugged off the three interceptions and was not even thinking about the four touchdown passes. All he did was stay calm, and in doing so, he kept his teammates calm.
On the Tigers’ final possession Watson completed 4-of-5 passes for 74 yards, including a 24-yard pass to Deon Cain on third-and-five from the Clemson 45 that kept the drive alive. Then on the following play he found tight end Jordan Leggett on a throwback to the left which turned out to be the game-winning 31-yard touchdown pass with 3:14 to play.
“The throwback to Jordan was something we had been waiting for the right situation to call,” Elliott said. “We were able to flip the field and put us in a position to be able to make that play… We knew we had to put together a drive to be able to score some points. Up to that point we had really been hit and miss in the second half so we were just trying to put guys in position to make plays and that was what they were challenged with and they made plays when it counted.”