No one was sure what Bobby Petrino was thinking after his Louisville team won the opening toss and elected to give Clemson the football to start the game. Why allow the second-ranked Tigers, who lead the ACC in scoring and total offense, take the football first and set the tone for the afternoon?
Though the Cardinals had little chance of knocking off Clemson on Saturday, why not take the football and see if they could get some early momentum and take the crowd of 78,741 at Death Valley out of the game.
Instead, the Tigers needed just four plays and 75 seconds to get on the scoreboard as Travis Etienne capped a 75-yard scoring drive to open the game with a 10-yard touchdown. From there, Clemson set the tone on what kind of day it was going to be in Death Valley as it cruised to a 77-16 victory over Louisville.
“We got the ball first with an opportunity to set the tempo for day. We then scored three touchdowns in a row on offense, which created the spark that we needed,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
What a spark it was.
The Tigers (9-0, 6-0 ACC) scored 11 touchdowns on its 15 possessions. Ten different players scored a touchdown, while the offense racked up 661 yards.
As Swinney said, Clemson scored the first three times it touched the ball. Following Etienne’s 15th rushing touchdown of the season, Tavien Feaster ran through a large hole up the middle for a 70-yard touchdown on the first play of the next series. The junior running back was not even touched on the play.
On the Tigers’ third possession, Tee Higgins caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Lawrence to cap an 8-play, 75-yard drive on the first play of the second quarter.
“First of all, the guys have to take care of business and put themselves in a position where they can call a bunch of plays. Coming out of the gate with five plays and 14 points…we’ve really challenged our guys to let that become a part of our identity and not wait until the third drive, so we took care of business,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
Clemson’s identity on Saturday was its running game, flipping the script on the last two weeks when it threw for 380 and 404 yards in wins over NC State and Florida State. The Tigers ran for 492 yards against Louisville, the fourth best figure in the program’s history.
Etienne (153) and Feaster (101) each rushed for 100-plus yards, as did freshman Lyn-J Dixon (116), who had a 55-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“It didn’t take him long to get to 100 yards, because he is electric,” Swinney said. “The running backs just have fun. You saw the heart and soul of Adam Choice today. That drive where he just kept going is the epitome of who that guy is. That play was amazing, and I’m really proud of him.
“It was great to see Feaster get on track and run for 100 yards, too. The running backs are a veteran group, and they support each other. There is just so much more experience on this year’s team than last year. Travis is awesome, and we truly have the type of depth that you need to have to produce a championship-caliber team. You have to give credit to the offensive line, too. We challenged the offense to run the ball today, and it was just a great day for those guys.”
It was even a great day for the quarterbacks, though Lawrence and Chase Brice combined for just 169 yards on 14-of-20 passing. Lawrence finished the day with two touchdown passes, while Brice had a career-high three, including a 59-yard scoring toss to Justyn Ross.
It was just that kind of day for the Clemson offense.
“I’m really proud that we were able to get off to a fast start,” co-coordinator Jeff Scott said. “We’ve been talking about how even though we’ve played well the last few weeks that there was even another step that we can take, and I feel like we came closer to that today.”