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Look how close Louisville came to beating Clemson

The Cardinals lost, 42-36, after a receiver came up just short.

Clemson took a circuitous route to beating Louisville on Saturday, in a game that came down to feet and inches.

The No. 5 Tigers grabbed an 18-point halftime lead against Lamar Jackson's No. 3 Cardinals, but then they lost all of that and went down eight points in the fourth quarter. When it was Clemson's turn for a counterpunch, the Tigers delivered. Clemson ultimately stopped the Cardinals inside the Clemson 5-yard line on a game-deciding fourth down, preserving a wild victory that seemed likely before it didn't. Receiver James Quick didn't quite get far enough to extend the game.

The margin stayed 42-36, where it'll stay forever. Had Quick gotten a yard farther, the Cardinals would've had more plays to score a game-winning touchdown. If he'd gotten four yards farther, Louisville would've won. The first-down line looked reachable, but Quick didn't reach far for it. Why not? Here's one guy's guess:

There weren't chains on the left sideline, where Quick was operating. There also wasn't an arrow or any other kind of sideline marker indicating where Quick needed to go. If he didn't know how much he needed, that'd make sense.


Anyway, it didn't happen for the Cards, and now Clemson controls the ACC Atlantic.

A few minutes into the final quarter, the game almost got away from Clemson.

Instead, we got a thrilling finish. Let's jump to the fourth quarter, with Louisville up two points and riding an impressive comeback wave that had Clemson on its heels.

Jackson ripped off 38 yards on a scramble on the first play after a Louisville interception. Before that, the Cardinals had taken a two-point lead on a field goal, their first advantage since they took 7-0 edge in the first quarter. After that opening score, the Cards fell behind 28-10, and they spent the third quarter digging out.

Jackson ran for two touchdowns during Louisville's charge back, and the second gave Louisville an eight-point lead. For just a moment, the game felt over -€” like Jackson had taken over and there wouldn't be any coming back.

That was wrong, of course. Clemson chipped back away and took a six-point lead with three minutes left, when Deshaun Watson -€” a star in his own right -€” found Jordan Leggett for a go-ahead touchdown. Jackson needed to answer, again, and he gave it an impressive try on Louisville's final drive. Quick's coming up so narrowly short was a fitting metaphor.

It shouldn't have been surprising that Clemson wasn't dead, even after blowing an 18-point lead and falling behind by eight. Watson is every bit the stud Jackson is, if a different type of player. Clemson's a top-five team.

Of course it'd be close. Of course we'd get the finish we did. It was never going to be any different.

The stakes here were higher than anyone figured before the season began.

Both Clemson and Louisville entered unbeaten, but they'd taken different routes to Saturday all the while.

Clemson was the country's No. 2 team in preseason polls, but the Tigers' run of year-opening wins was tepid -€” a 19-13 win with some last-minute shenanigans against Auburn here, a six-point home win against Troy there. They didn't start to look much like themselves until they thrashed Georgia Tech in Atlanta two Thursdays ago.

Meanwhile, Louisville's breakthrough has been one of the early going's defining stories. Jackson completed his transformation from three-star recruit to world-beating superstar, and the Cardinals announced themselves as contenders by throttling Florida State two weeks ago.

Add all of that together, and mix in that Florida State has quickly faded from the ACC and Playoff picture, and you got a Saturday night showdown with everything on the line. It turned out to be quite a night.

At half, Louisville seemed not quite itself. Jackson wasn't dominating, and he became enraged after Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware stuck him in a choke hold near the end of the second quarter.

But Jackson and Louisville both picked up business in the second half, coming back from three scores down to set up the frenetic finish we all got to enjoy. This'll sting, but the Cardinals still showed plenty, and so did the Tigers.