LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Clemson used a late rally for the second straight week to knock off Louisville on Saturday at Cardinal Stadium. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from the Tigers’ 30-24 win.
With Louisville having an unprecedented amount of success against Clemson’s defense on the ground, the Tigers needed the offense to come through if they were going to pull off another comeback. Once again, the unit delivered.
Malik Cunningham’s final touchdown run — this one a 51-yarder early in the third quarter — put Louisville up 24-17 before the Tigers made their moves. Clemson went 40 yards on eight plays on its first possession of the fourth quarter to get a little bit closer on B.T. Potter’s 34-yard field goal. The Tigers got the ball back less than 2 minutes later and marched 57 yards on nine plays for the go-ahead touchdown.
D.J. Uiagalelei capped it with an 8-yard touchdown run, but a couple of completions earlier in the possession loomed large. He started the drive with a 10-yard pass to freshman Beaux Collins before later finding Justyn Ross for 10 yards on third-and-9 that kept the drive alive at Louisville’s 21-yard line. It was part of arguably Uiagalelei’s best all-around performance of the season. He threw for a season-high 220 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown strike to Collins on the Tigers’ first possession of the game, and accounted for three touchdowns.
Most importantly for Uiagalelei, he played a turnover-free game for the first time in three weeks. And he did it while gutting through a knee injury that briefly forced him to leave the game in the first half.
Collins had his best game in a Clemson uniform, hauling in six catches for his first career 100-yard receiving game. A bounceback performance from Potter also played an integral part in the win. After missing three field goals against Florida State the previous week, Potter also connected on kicks of 38 and 40 yards (the latter extending Clemson’s lead to six points, which required Louisville to try to score a touchdown on its final possession) to finish 3 for 3 on his field-goal attempts Saturday.
And the defense showed up when it had to to help the Tigers hold on for their fourth win decided by 10 points or less this season. Clemson turned the Cardinals over on downs on each of their final two possessions, including a stop inside the Tigers’ 5-yard line in the final 20 seconds.
While Clemson continued to make improvement offensively in some areas, the Tigers weren’t good on third down, converting just 5 of 14 money downs against the Cardinals. And a running game that had been averaging nearly 180 yards over the last four games wasn’t nearly as effective. The Tigers totaled just 125 rushing yards on 36 carries, their lowest rushing output since running for 116 at Syracuse on Oct. 15.
Without Taisun Phommachanh’s 33 yards when he briefly relieved Uiagalelei in the first half, that rushing total would’ve been even lower. Will Shipley was Clemson’s leading rusher with just 47 yards on 14 carries, and a missed opportunity deep in Louisville territory early in the third quarter showed just how tough the sledding was at times on the ground.
With Clemson facing first-and-goal at Louisville’s 7, freshman running back Phil Mafah picked up just 2 yards. The Tigers moved 4 more yards on their next two plays to set up fourth-and-goal from the 1. Clemson went for it and called Mafah’s number again, but he was stuffed for no gain to keep Louisville ahead 24-17 at the time.
A special teams gaffe earlier in the game also led to points for the Cardinals. Will Brown muffed a punt late in the second quarter that Louisville’s Marvin Dallas recovered at Clemson’s 34. Three plays later, Cunningham found paydirt on a 23-yard run to give Louisville a 14-7 lead.
Clemson’s usually stingy run defense was anything but against Louisville. In fact, Cunningham, at least when he was healthy, made the Tigers look pedestrian in that department.
The Tigers bottled up the other two dual-threat signal callers it had seen in ACC play, Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader and Florida State’s Jordan Travis, to the tune of 2 net yards. But Cunningham ran over, around and through the Tigers, ripping off chunk after chunk on the ground.
He had 138 rushing yards through the first three quarters and was averaging 9.9 yards per tote going to the fourth. Cunningham wasn’t the same after injuring his ankle late in the third quarter, which played a part in Clemson holding him to minus-4 yards on his final eight runs, but Louisville finished with 223 rushing yards — 110 more than Clemson was holding teams to on average coming in. The Cardinals, who also got a 26-yard touchdown run from Jalen Mitchell, had 178 of those early in the third quarter, which was already the most the Tigers had allowed all season at that point.
And the injury bug continues to bite. Running back Kobe Pace and cornerback Andrew Booth both left the game in the first half with head injuries and didn’t return. Receiver Joseph Ngata left in the second half with what offensive coordinator Tony Elliott described as a foot injury.
Clemson also started its sixth different combination on the offensive line with guard Will Putnam (ankle) out. Mason Trotter slid over to fill in for Putnam at right guard while Hunter Rayburn returned to the starting lineup at center, which might explain why there wasn’t quite as much push up front in the running game.
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