Lamar Jackson still doesn’t want to talk about that extra yard Louisville never got in 2016.
“Man, it is what it is,” Jackson said, with a bit of a grin. “It happened.”
In October 2016, Jackson took his No. 5 Louisville squad into Death Valley to face Deshaun Watson and the No. 3 Clemson Tigers. The result was a game that had impacts for both of their football careers still felt today.
It was one of the best college games of the season, a game that featured eight total touchdowns between Watson and Jackson, 57 first downs, 1,075 yards of total offense — including one crucial yard left on the field in a 42-36 Clemson win.
And on the eve of a rematch between two of the best college quarterbacks of the decade, here’s a look back at one of the most entertaining football games in recent memory, told by three players who came up a yard short.
Josh Harvey-Clemons knew the Cardinals had a shot to march into Death Valley and escape with a win. They had Lamar Jackson.
In Jackson’s freshman year, the defense routinely complained to coach Bobby Petrino that Jackson needed different rules in practice, as quarterbacks aren’t to be touched. So one day, Petrino made Jackson live, like everyone else.
“He probably had three touchdowns that day,” said Geron Christian, a tackle for the Redskins and former Louisville player.
A year later, the Cardinals went into Memorial Stadium at Clemson with their sophomore quarterback, ready to knock off college football's second-place team a year prior.
“That game was crazy, that was my only time playing at Clemson,” Christian said. “That fanbase and everything was crazy. I mean, shoot, it was a great game.”
On the opposite sideline, however, stood perhaps the best player in college football in Watson. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting a year prior, a year in which he combined for 5,214 yards.
Clemson, a year after a five-point defeat to Alabama in the National Championship Game, had its sights set on winning the national title. And to many, it appeared they had the best quarterback in the country.
Louisville, however, remained confident. It had its own offensive weapon in Jackson. The venue didn’t faze them.
“That was a great game,” Harvey-Clemons, now a linebacker for the Redskins, said. “Being there, in Death Valley at a night game, is one of the loudest stadiums I’ve played in.”
And after a scoreless first quarter, things exploded.
Louisville got on the board first and took a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter. The game took a turn, however, led by Watson.
Clemson outscored Louisville 28-3 the rest of the half and led 28-10 at halftime. Watson threw touchdown passes of 33, 37 and five yards to put Clemson ahead for what looked to be for good.
“He was just dicing us down the field,” Jackson said. “Our defense did great, don't get me wrong. Our defense played a great game, but he was just doing Deshaun Watson things.”
In the second half, however, Louisville jumped on Clemson and hung 26 unanswered points on the board. Jackson had two rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown to put Louisville ahead.
Watson came right back in the fourth quarter with two scoring drives of his own and threw touchdown passes of 20 and 31 yards to give the Tigers a six-point lead late in the game. He finished the night 20-of-31 passing for 306 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He also had 91 yards rushing on 14 carries.
But the game wasn’t over just yet. Jackson and the Cardinals had a chance, down six, to steal a game in Death Valley and put them on the fast track to the College Football Playoff.
Faced with 4th and 12 at the Clemson 14-yard line, with 39 seconds left to play, Jackson fired a strike to wide receiver James Quick who caught the pass and raced toward the sideline.
Quick thought he beat Clemson defender Marcus Edmond to the spot. Instead, he wound up a yard short.
“...we went out of bounds like right before...we thought we had the first down and went out of bounds right on the goal line,” Harvey-Clemons recalled.
Clemson took over on downs and held on for a 42-36 win. It later went on to a 14-1 season and beat Alabama to win the National Championship Game.
Louisville finished 9-4 and Jackson won the Heisman that season — the youngest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy. He totaled 4,928 yards and 51 touchdowns.
Still, it’s hard not to think about how both that season, and Jackson and Watson’s careers, could be different if Louisville had gotten that extra yard.
“We have to move on from that,” Jackson said this week. “I can't dwell on it. It is what it is.”
Three years later, Jackson and Watson are leading their teams with title-aspirations into a matchup against one another, as the two are in contention for the league’s highest individual award.
Jackson, the 32nd overall pick in 2018 NFL Draft, and Watson, the 12th pick in 2017, each had to face their fair share of doubters in the NFL.
To those who played in that game, though, it’s not surprising the level of success they’re having at the NFL level. 15 players on that Clemson roster in 2016 were drafted in the NFL and six from Louisville were.
Of all the draft picks, both Harvey-Clemons and Christian are convinced of who was the best player on the field the first time Watson and Jackson, biases inconsequential.
“You know who I’m gonna go with,” Harvey-Clemons said with a chuckle. “Deshaun is a great quarterback though, man. He’s doing great things this year too.”
The new era of NFL quarterbacks have arrived, and two of the best examples will square off on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
“He’s surprising a lot of people, but I was telling these guys the other day that everything he’s doing, is the same thing he’s been doing,” Harvey-Clemons said. “It’s not surprising me, because I know what type of athlete he is, and what type of athlete he’s been since he got to college.”
The Ravens, at 7-2, and the Texans, at 6-3, have other matchups that will make Sunday intriguing. But just like that night in Death Valley, the story will be the quarterbacks.
“Both of those guys are great quarterbacks,” Harvey-Clemons said. “And seeing them play this week is going to be a show, just like it was back in college.”
JP Finlay contributed to this story.
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