Of all the “disrespect” that reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson endured this past offseason, it is said only one thing became bulletin board material for him.
What supposedly lit Jackson’s competitive fire was a January Sports Illustrated story about former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and his NFL future. In that story, an anonymous ACC coach was quoted as saying the Louisville quarterback “had no chance” to play in the NFL.
“He can’t make the throws and can’t read the defenses,” the unnamed coach told writer Pete Thamel. “He’s not going to have a chance.”
On Saturday night, against the closest thing college football likely has to an NFL defense, Jackson had a chance to show his anonymous doubter — and all other skeptics about his future as an NFL QB — why they are wrong.
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Instead, the opposite happened.
Before the second-largest crowd (55,588) ever to see a football game in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, defending national champion and No. 3 Clemson obliterated Jackson and No. 14 Louisville 47-21.
“You’ve got to give them credit, they are a very, very good football team,” Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino said of the Tigers. “But I’m really disappointed in the way we played.”
Harried by a physical Clemson pass rush and his receivers struggling to get open, Jackson completed only 21 of 42 passes. He tossed a game-deciding pick-six that Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel took to the house from 44 yards out for a 26-7 lead midway through the third quarter.
“(The Louisville) offense did a horrible job tonight,” Jackson said. “It’s on all of us.”
Rather than Jackson, it was Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant — making his first career start on the road — who looked like the Heisman Trophy candidate.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior — who impersonated Jackson on the Clemson scout team before 2016’s U of L-Clemson game — threw for 316 yards and a touchdown and ran for two scores.
“Kelly was awesome,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said.
Jackson’s night went awry from the start. The Louisville QB misfired on his first four passes, sailing several high above intended receivers.
“I think I was too excited, I came out too excited,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t calm like usual right before (the prior two games this season). I just came out too excited.”
With Jackson not dialed in through the air, Louisville ended the first half 0-of-6 on third-down conversions. Last year, when U of L took Clemson to the wire before losing 42-36, the Cardinals converted nine of 18 third downs.
“A year ago, we were converting third downs, and today we weren’t doing it,” Petrino said.
Jackson is so good, even when he’s off, he’s productive. The junior finished with 317 passing yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 64 yards on 17 carries.
But 199 of his passing yards and two of his scoring throws came in the fourth quarter after Clemson had opened a 33-7 lead. Entering the final period, Jackson was 12-of-26 through the air.
Asked what went wrong in the passing game, Petrino said U of L’s struggles throwing the ball went deeper than its quarterback.
“The patience on the coverages. And then we did have some things (open), we had some pressure,” Petrino said. “I think it would be interesting to watch the video and see how we worked together on the offensive front.”
A college football season is long and twisting. So a lot can happen between now and November. With that disclaimer, Jackson’s bid to join Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winners may have taken a lethal blow from Clemson.
Louisville’s aspirations of making the ACC Championship Game for the first time is again in Clemson’s hands, too.
Going back to last year, U of L has now lost four of its last six games.
When the Cardinals have gotten in against high-level defenses — Houston and LSU late last year; Clemson late Saturday night — Jackson doesn’t appear to have much help in terms of playmakers who can stress a defense.
Nevertheless, on a night when the eyes of the college football world were on Louisville, Jackson’s chance to confound a certain anonymous doubter — and any other skeptics — were swept away by a plethora of pass incompletions.
Said Jackson: “We got out there and we wanted to show everybody what Louisville is about — and we didn’t show that, not at all.”
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