LOUISVILLE — It came down to the wire, yet again, but Clemson gutted out a 30-24 win over Louisville at Cardinal Stadium on Saturday night.
The defense, which arguably had its worst game of the season, stopped Malik Cunnigham when it mattered the most.
Hampered by a PCL strain and a brace on his right knee, D.J. Uiagalelei gave Clemson a 3-point lead on an 8-yard rushing touchdown, in which he waltzed into the end zone on a delayed QB draw.
It was a lead the Tigers wouldn’t relinquish, though Clemson gave Louisville every opportunity to hang around.
Uiagalelei finished Saturday’s contest by completing 18-of-30 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns, including a 48-yard first-quarter touchdown to Beaux Collins. The true freshman receiver finished the game with a career-high 104 receiving yards.
Fighting through injuries to key players, an uncharacteristic defensive performance and a lackluster rushing attack, Clemson earned just its second road win of the season.
It was true freshman safety Andrew Mukuba, who stopped Cunnigham on both second and fourth down to prevent Louisville from either tying the game or taking the lead.
However, Lousiville did get the ball back after turning it over on downs. Clemson forced the Cardinals to take all three of their timeouts, although it came at the expense of a conservative red-zone offense, which settled for a B.T. Potter 40-yard field goal.
Coming out of the gate in the second half, Louisville’s offense picked up where it left off. Another touchdown drive by the Cardinals took just three plays yet again, culminating in a 51-yard rushing touchdown,
In need of an answer, Will Shipley returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards to Louisville’s 18-yard line. Clemson had a chance to tie the game, but Louisville linebacker Dorian Jones stuffed Phil Mafah for no gain on a crucial fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
As Louisville drove the football down the field with relative ease, Cunnigham went down in a heap. The Cardinals redshirt junior signal-caller seemed to go down awkwardly and was in almost immediate pain. Cunningham was replaced by sophomore quarterback Evan Conley, a former three-star recruit from the Peach State.
Conley, obviously, doesn’t have the same speed and escapability that makes Cunnigham a Lamar Jackson-esque runner. In relief of Cunnigham, Conley threw three incompletions and had one rushing attempt for zero yards.
Before leaving the game, Cunningham rushed for 134 yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry. For reference, he was averaging just over five yards a carry per game this season. Cunningham tied a season-high 134 rushing yards, which he recorded in Louisville’s 28-14 win over Boston College back on Oct. 23.
After what looked like a serious injury, Cunnigham returned to the game in the fourth quarter. He was hobbled, but he gave the Cardinals a chance to win it at the end.
Clemson’s rushing defense gave up a season-high 223 rushing yards on 47 rushing attempts. They were able to stifle Louisville’s rushing attack for the majority of the fourth quarter, but that was more so because of Cunnigham’s injury.
As for the team’s rushing offense, the offensive line didn’t give Clemson’s running backs much of a chance. Clemson introduced its sixth different starting offensive line combination of the season, with Hunter Rayburn manning the center position and Mason Trotter sliding over to right guard, in place of an injured Will Putnam.
While injuries hampered Clemson’s rushing efforts, Shipley led the way with 40 yards on 13 carries. As for Uiagalelei, Kobe Pace, Phil Mafah and Taisun Phommachanh, they all combined for 78 yards on 22 carries.
The Tigers’ offensive woes in the third quarter persisted again. Over the past five games, Clemson has scored just six points in the third quarter of play. That number, of course, did not change on Saturday.
True freshman receiver Dacari Collins had a chance to tie the game with just over 10 minutes to play but came up inches short. Collins made an acrobatic, juggling grab, but ultimately could not keep his feet in bounds. It was ruled incomplete on the field and the ruling on the field stood.
It didn’t end up mattering, though. Clemson was able to fight through adversity, specifically behind its quarterback’s gutsy effort.
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