Note: The following appears in the North Carolina football gameday program.
Editor’s Note – For each program in 2023, Tim Bourret chronicles an epic game in the history of Memorial Stadium. Today is the seventh installment.
There has been just one game in the history of Memorial Stadium that has featured a player on each side who finished that same season in the top two of the Heisman Trophy race. That game took place on Oct. 1, 2016, when Clemson defeated Louisville 42-36. It truly ranks as one of the epic games in the 82-year history of Death Valley, and it is fitting that we end our season-long series with a review of this game.
This contest had everything, and that included the pregame hype. The Tigers were led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting the previous year, and the Cardinals featured Lamar Jackson, who was receiving a lot of Heisman Trophy hype after leading Louisville to a 63-20 win over No. 2 Florida State. Jackson rushed for 146 yards, scored four touchdowns and passed for 216 yards and another touchdown in shocking the Seminoles.
With the 5-0 start, Louisville was ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, while the Tigers, who had played Alabama for the national championship the previous season, were ranked No. 5 in the same poll after starting 4-0, but held the No. 3 spot in the coaches poll. You could say both teams were ranked No. 3 entering the contest.
In this game that featured 78 points, neither team scored in the first quarter. But that all changed in the second quarter, when the Tigers scored four touchdowns to Louisville’s 10 points.
Watson was an incredible 11-12 for 189 yards and three touchdowns in the second quarter. He connected twice with Deon Cain on touchdown passes of 37 and 33 yards, and he later threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Artavis Scott.
Brent Venables’ defense would finish the season in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense, total defense and pass efficiency defense. Those figures would have been top five had the Tigers not faced Jackson. He led Louisville on a 26-0 run during the third and fourth quarters to take a 36-28 lead.
Trailing by eight points with under eight minutes left, Scott got the Tigers started on the right track with a 77-yard kickoff return. That return seemed to change the momentum. Two plays later, Watson connected with Mike Williams on a 20-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion pass failed, and the Tigers trailed 36-34 with 7:05 remaining.
The Tiger defense, led by All-American Ben Boulware’s 18 tackles on the night, got a stop on the next possession. The Tigers took over on their own 15 needing only a field goal to take the lead.
However, Head Coach Dabo Swinney knew a field goal probably would not be enough to beat Jackson on a last-minute drive. On the eighth play of the drive, Swinney and his offensive staff called a play they had seen Louisville use earlier in the season. The play involved a crossing pattern to the tight end.
In this case, it was Jordan Leggett, who would become Clemson’s career leader in receiving touchdowns by a tight end on the play. The offensive line gave Watson the time, and he hit Leggett with the pass on the left wing. He then negotiated the final 20 yards to complete the 31-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers then connected on the two-point conversion for a 42-36 lead with 3:14 left.
The game was far from over, as Jackson marched the Cardinals down the field. He led his team to the red zone. On a fourth-down play, Jackson completed a pass to James Quick on the left side. But Quick’s attempt to reach the two yard line and a first down ended one yard short thanks to a tackle by Marcus Edmond with 33 seconds left. It was the first of two game-saving defensive plays for Edmond, who had a game-ending interception in overtime against NC State two games later.
The final statistics for both teams and both quarterbacks were striking. Louisville totaled 99 plays and gained 568 yards (273 rushing, 295 passing). Jackson finished with 162 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries and completed 27-44 passes for 295 yards.
Watson had 91 yards on 14 carries, and he completed 20-31 passes for 306 yards and five touchdowns. He was the first FBS player in the last four years with 300+ passing yards and five touchdowns along with 90+ rushing yards in a game. The only other player to do it during the time period was Clemson’s Tajh Boyd in a victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2013 season.
In December at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Jackson took home the award and Watson finished second. But a month later, it was Watson who held the national championship trophy, leading the Tigers to a 35-31 win over Alabama with another last-minute win, giving Clemson its first national title in 35 years.
Next time you see that ACC Network is replaying this thrilling game, make sure to record it.