Offense delivers again to help Clemson pull off a first in the Swinney era

Offense delivers again to help Clemson pull off a first in the Swinney era

Football

Offense delivers again to help Clemson pull off a first in the Swinney era

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Little did anyone know it at the time, but Louisville’s make-it-look-easy drive to open Saturday’s game against Clemson was foreshadowing for the Cardinals’ offense.

The same could be said for the Tigers’ much-maligned unit.

Clemson’s offense did its part in helping the Tigers escape Cardinal Stadium with a 30-24 victory. The defense made a pair of stops late in the fourth quarter to help preserve the lead, including tracking down Malik Cunningham one last time inside Clemson’s 5-yard line on fourth down with less than a minute left, but Clemson first needed a lead to preserve.

For the second straight week, it was the offense delivering when it had to, which has been rare this season. Last week, it was a scoop and score that gave Florida State a fourth-quarter lead on the Tigers. On Saturday, it was Cunningham that was almost single-handedly responsible for having Clemson in need of another comeback by running over, around and through Clemson’s usually stout rush defense.

“The defense has been there all year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “In our three losses, they put us in position to win, and we didn’t get it done on offense. But it was awesome to see the offense pick those (defensive) guys up. I just think that’s great for our team.”

Cunningham racked up more than 100 of the Cardinals’ 220 rushing yards on his first 12 carries, the 11th of which went for a 51-yard touchdown that put Louisville ahead 24-17 midway through the third quarter. The hits took a toll on Louisville’s dual-threat signal caller, who injured his ankle after taking a hit from Trenton Simpson at the end of a run later in the quarter.

Cunningham’s mobility suffered as a result, but the lead Louisville had from that scoring run was still intact midway through the fourth quarter. That’s when Clemson’s offense, with a banged-up quarterback of its own, answered the call once again.

The running game (118 yards on 35 carries) wasn’t as effective as it’s been in recent weeks, particularly with leading rusher Kobe Pace out for most of the game after taking a blow to the head during the first half. But D.J. Uiagalelei, who left the game in the second quarter after tweaking his knee before returning, helped pick up the slack with one of his better games throwing the ball this season. Clemson’s quarterback finished 18 of 30 for a season-high 220 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, Uiagalelei stayed away from turnovers.

It helped the Tigers stay close, and after punting or turning the ball over on downs on three of its previous four possessions, Clemson pieced together another comeback. A week after producing the go-ahead touchdown on Will Shipley’s highlight-reel run late in the fourth quarter against FSU, the Tigers pieced together a nine-play, 57-yard bailout on a night when the defense yielded 397 total yards and nearly 6 per play.

Uiagalelei capped it with an 8-yard touchdown run, but not before he and Justyn Ross connected on a 10-yard pass that helped Clemson move the chains on third-and-9 in Louisville territory. He also used his legs to convert another third down in the red zone a couple plays before his final touchdown.

It put the Tigers up 27-24 with 4:12 remaining. And once the defense forced a turnover on downs on Louisville’s final two possessions to seal the game, Clemson had pulled off back-to-back comeback wins in the fourth quarter for the first time in Swinney’s tenure.

Clemson finished with 338 total yards and had four more first downs than the Cardinals (21-17) in a game that saw the Tigers’ offense produce its highest point total against an FBS opponent this season. It came a week after Clemson cracked the 20-point mark for the first time in regulation against an FBS foe.

“I think it just shows our growth as an offense and where we’ve come from,” Uiagalelei said. “To be able to go punch it in with a game-winning touchdown when you need to be able to get points to win the game, it’s big for our offense. It’s huge. That’s just a great confidence booster to be able to keep us going. I’m real excited about this offense.”

Of course, how the Tigers started the game offensively was almost as critical as how they finished it. Louisville put Clemson in an immediate hole with a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game, but the Tigers only needed half that many plays to answer.

A 12-yard run by Pace and a 17-yard back-shoulder completion to Joseph Ngata set up the kind of explosive play Clemson’s offense has rarely produced this season. Uiagalelei went over the top on Clemson’s next snap to connect with Beaux Collins for a 46-yard touchdown, the Tigers’ second-longest pass play of the season.

“You’re on the road, and momentum is key,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “The game is going to come down to who can fip the momentum at the right time, and it was on us to go out there and challenge the guys. … Beaux and (Justyn) Ross executed it right. D.J. had great protection and delivered the ball. It was huge.”

It was another step in the right direction for an offense that’s suddenly showing some consistent life.

“Offensively we’re starting to hit our stride a little bit, and you saw a lot of good things (Saturday),” Swinney said.

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