LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- After Clemson rolled through two easy blowout wins over Wofford and Appalachian State, Dabo Swinney kept hearing the same question from fans and the media. What do you really know about your team, coach?
That’s understandable, given that the Tigers -- despite a roster stuffed full of underclassmen -- were ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press poll and No. 9 by the coaches heading into Thursday night’s game at Louisville. The early season competition level hadn’t shown whether Clemson really deserved such accolades.
Swinney wasn’t as concerned with justifying his team’s status as he was with finding out just how it would respond when seriously pushed. The Tigers certainly had to fight for a 20-17 road win that featured some sloppy play and required a couple of defensive stops in the final three minutes to preserve the outcome.
“I think we answered a lot of questions about perseverance, about mental toughness and how we’re going to handle adversity,” Swinney said.
Nothing came easily against Louisville. Clemson lost its top two right tackles early to leg injuries, though starter Joe Gore was able to return. The offensive line was already playing with a fill-in at center and a true freshman (Mitch Hyatt at left tackle).
This was the first big game without injured wide receiver Mike Williams, making it a challenge to stretch the field. Quarterback Deshaun Watson threw two interceptions and bounced a third-down pass to Jordan Leggett that might have sealed the game away in the fourth quarter. Special teams gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that got Louisville back into the game.
So it wasn’t a perfect performance, not by any means. But the Tigers felt they learned a lot about themselves by sweating out the victory.
“It’s good to see us overcoming all that,” Watson said. “We’ll just keep pushing forward and build on this win later in the season.”
The defense helped carry the team on Thursday night, which might register as a mild surprise. This is a unit, after all, that returned only three starters from last season and had to replace several stars. That was hard to tell against Louisville, as Clemson allowed only one offensive touchdown, registered five sacks and yielded just 19 total rushing yards on 28 carries. The Cardinals have their issues up front, but this still qualified as an impressive effort.
“I’m happy for us, because we’re proving everybody wrong,” linebacker Ben Boulware said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, but they stepped up, were willing to play and did their job to a tee. We’re basically shutting everybody up.”
Swinney also enjoyed seeing so many young guys contribute in different ways. There was Hunter Renfrow hauling in the team’s first touchdown and Greg Huegel kicking two field goals. Renfrow was a walk-on who was given a scholarship in August, while Huegel is still paying his own way and filling in for suspended kicker Ammon Lakip.
“These are freshmen making some plays for us in the fourth quarter on the road, for the first time,” Swinney said. “The next thing you know, you look up in mid-October ..."
Watson, it should be noted, is still only a sophomore with eight starts under his belt. Running back Wayne Gallman is also only a second-year guy. He came on late last year for the Tigers and might be getting even better, as evidenced by how hard he worked for his 24-carry, 139-yard showing against a stout defensive front.
“This is probably one of the first games I’ve really felt comfortable,” Gallman said. “I didn’t have the jitters. I’m starting to feel like everything’s coming up.”
The same could be said for Clemson as a whole. This team is probably not quite worthy of a top-10 ranking yet, not while it’s still figuring out a lot of new parts. The rougher edges of the Louisville win showed that.
But if the Tigers can continue developing, Swinney could have some good answers for what he knows about his team at the end of the year.
“We’re not a great team yet, but we’re improving, and that’s our goal,” Swinney said. “I think we have a chance to be a great team by November.”