This was the moment that set Clemson on a national championship path in 2016:
No. 3 Louisville visited the No. 5 Tigers in Death Valley on Oct. 1, in Week 5. It was Saturday night’s big ABC game, and it lived up to every ounce of its hype.
The decisive thing was Louisville receiver James Quick stepping out of bounds a yard shy of a first down on the left sideline with 33 seconds left. The Cardinals had faced a fourth-and-12, down six points. Quick appeared to go out of bounds really easily, and that might’ve been because nobody laid down a marker for him to see. Louisville’s quarterback, Lamar Jackson, thought he’d lost track of where he had to go.
The 2016 game continued a trend of Clemson-Louisville nail-biters.
Clemson has beaten Louisville 3 years in a row. But it’s been AGONIZINGLY close all 3 times… pic.twitter.com/9Z2aCKDBJl— #DaHale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 12, 2017
The 2014 game finished almost identically to the 2016 game. In ‘14, Louisville QB Will Gardner threw a pass to Quick on a fourth-and-goal from the Clemson 2, and the Tigers batted it away almost as soon as it left his hands.
In 2015, Louisville came up 10 or so yards short of field goal range, down three, and Kyle Bolin threw an interception on the last play of the game.
For the rematch, Clemson visits Louisville Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC). Clemson’s favored by a field goal, and it’s likely to be close again.
Before 2017’s kickoff, here are eight things about their 2016 bonanza in Death Valley.
1. Clemson’s awesome entrance became a nine-minute mini-movie on TV.
Clemson's epic Death Valley entrance, captured by ESPN
One of the most epic entrances in all of college football, as captured expertly by ESPN. Here's the Clemson Football spectacle, and here's how ESPN does it: http://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2016/10/5/13167362/clemson-tigers-entrance-death-valley-howards-rock-bus-hillPosted by SB Nation College Football on Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Because of the complexity of the entrance — the players exit their locker room on the west side of the stadium, board buses, travel to the east side, touch Howard’s Rock, and run down the hill and onto the field — Clemson and ESPN had to coordinate with local police and fire departments. Not only would multiple cameras track the players (including cameras on Clemson’s buses that were developed for NASCAR in-race footage), but they’d navigate thousands of fans in tight passages.
Mobley estimated ESPN’s total crew to have been around 200. Normally, TV production trucks start set-ups on Fridays, but the complexity and variety of shots required an extra day of prep, and the Tigers’ meetings with ESPN started as early as the day of their game at Georgia Tech the week prior.
“If you’re approached by this crew, find a way to make it happen. That’s our mentality here,” Clemson director of athletic video services Rick Bagby said. “We’re going to find a way to make it happen. The end result is spectacular. The national exposure we get off that? No one can pay for that.”
2. The offenses were absolutely popping.
The teams gained a combined 1,075 yards from scrimmage. Louisville had 568 of those, though the Cardinals ran a preposterous 99 plays to get them. For some reference there, the FBS record since 2000 is 118, run by Cal against Oregon last year. Only 27 times last season did a team run 99 or more plays, and this was one. Clemson was more efficient, averaging 8.2 yards per play to Louisville’s 5.7.
3. Deshaun Watson was incredible for Clemson.
He was 20-of-31. passing for 306 yards and five touchdowns, didn’t get sacked, and ran 14 times for 92 yards.
4. Deshaun Watson was also bad for Clemson.
I didn’t mention his three interceptions or his lost fumble. Louisville fumbled the ball back to Clemson on the next play after that, but Louisville still had 20 points off turnovers. Clemson had 14.
5. Lamar Jackson bolstered his Heisman case in a loss.
Despite some errors, Jackson mostly dunked on Clemson’s elite defense. He finished 27-of-44 for 295 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in the passing game. He ran for 162 yards on 31 carries. You don’t get to filter out sacks, but if you did, Jackson’s passing stats would’ve been 22 yards worse and his running line would’ve been 26 carries for 184 yards, a 7.1-yard average. He had a marvelous game.
6. Just like in 2017, Clemson defenders expressed pregame confidence about dealing with Jackson.
Jadar Johnson is asked about Lamar Jackson and says "That's who, No. 8?" Asked what he'd do if Jackson tries to hurdle him: "Body slam him."— Larry Williams (@LarryWilliamsTI) September 27, 2016
“(Lamar is) a special talent,” DE Austin Bryant said. “He’s got a different gear. He’s strong, he’s fast. So it’s going to present us a great challenge, but I believe that we face that same thing in Kelly Bryant every day in practice. It should be just like putting practice on a game day atmosphere.”
Fellow defensive end Clelin Ferrell wasn’t quite as brash as Austin Bryant, but he did echo his overall sentiment.
“Both of them are great athletes. Kelly, that’s the best look at what you’re going to get. Kelly don’t run as much as Lamar does, but you see that same type of athletic ability with Kelly. That makes it a lot easier for us to see guys like that on our (practice) field,” Bryant said. “We don’t get overwhelmed by anything that we see in our competition. Even though we respect everybody we play we don’t get overwhelmed because we feel like we have the best here and we go against it every day.”
7. Louisville’s last drive was almost an all-timer.
It didn’t work out, because Quick came up a yard short on that fourth-and-12. But it was nonetheless an 11-play, 72-yard drive in 2:41. Clemson had taken the lead with just over three minutes left on a Jordan Leggett touchdown. The counterpunch by Louisville was impressive, but it needed just a smidge more.
8. Clemson won the ACC — and was able to win the Playoff — as a result.
The Tigers lost later in the season to Pitt. But because they’d beaten Louisville, they won the ACC Atlantic on a tiebreaker when both finished 7-1 in league play. That got them to the conference title game, and winning that got them to the Playoff. Clemson’s entire historic run came down to Quick going out just short.