LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Clemson players chose to focus more on the result of their performance against Louisville rather than how it looked, a wise choice considering things were sometimes hard to look at.
The mission now for the No. 11 Tigers is building on the many good things that worked in their 20-17 escape of the Cardinals on Thursday night.
Deshaun Watson provided many of the positives by throwing two touchdown passes while Wayne Gallman ran for 139 yards as the Tigers won the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for both schools. Clemson sacked quarterback Kyle Bolin five times and held the Cardinals to 19 yards rushing, offsetting ragged stretches that gave Louisville several chances to tie or win down the stretch.
Breaking through was tough for Louisville against a Tigers team that improved to 40-0 the last five years when leading after three quarters.
“When you go on the road, you find out what type of mental toughness you have,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Tonight was a ton of adversity. A lot of it self-inflicted.”
Watson threw two interceptions but still led Clemson (3-0, 1-0) to a solid conference win after routs of Wofford and Appalachian State. Swinney said Watson played well but suggested a couple of throws would nag the sophomore, including one to a wide-open Jordan Leggett on third down in the fourth quarter.
“That was one of those throws that’s simple for me, but I kind of just rushed it and kind of didn’t really follow through,” Watson said. “My feet got stuck in the turf.”
Watson was spot on when needed, finding Socastee product Hunter Renfrow and Leggett wide open down the middle for TD passes of 32 and 25 yards, respectively.
“He played pretty good,” Swinney said about Watson. “He’s going to be disappointed in two missed throws. I mean, shoot, he ain’t perfect.”
Greg Huegel had field goals of 36 and 27 yards for Clemson.
Louisville (0-3, 0-1) started its third quarterback in three games with Kyle Bolin, and used freshman Lamar Jackson and sophomore Reggie Bonnafon behind center in a search for offensive consistency. The combination kept the Cardinals within reach of Clemson long enough to have a last shot at a win, but Bolin’s desperation pass was tipped near the goal line and intercepted by Jadar Johnson in the final seconds.
The ending left Clemson players and fans relieved and happy with their second straight escape over Louisville, which has its first 0-3 start since 1984.
After exiting last year’s home victory over the Cardinals early with a broken hand, Watson completed 21 of 30 passes to eight targets for 199 yards. Gallman rushed 24 times for his season-high yardage and helped the Tigers outgain the Cardinals 401-272. Louisville was just 2 of 14 on third down a year after a 1-of-17 effort at Clemson.
“We’re just not very good right now on offense,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “We have a hard time running the football and tonight we had a hard time converting third downs. … We did get an opportunity to get in the position to tie the game, and then get in position to throw one in the end zone late, but there just wasn’t enough power on offense.”
Clemson also spoiled Louisville’s second nationally televised appearance in three games, one that featured the presence of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in his hometown.
Fans, meanwhile, dressed in black as part of a promotion that featured the Cardinals dressed in all-black helmets and uniforms with old English lettering.
Despite struggling with three QBs in various roles, the Cardinals got to 20-17 in the fourth quarter on Traveon Samuel’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown with 9:41 left. John Wallace’s 38-yard attempt sailed wide left with 2:28 left, but Louisville still positioned itself to go for the win before Bolin’s pass was picked off.
Bolin was 19 of 34 for 238 yards with two interceptions.
“It hurts right now. I have full confidence we’ll bounce we’ll bounce back.”