Clemson-Louisville grades: Watson, Tigers defense come up big in win

The highest-graded players and biggest takeaways from Clemson's thrilling win over Louisville.

| 9 months ago
(Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)

(Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)

Clemson-Louisville grades: Watson, Tigers defense come up big in win

Clemson Tigers 42, Louisville Cardinals 36

Here are the highest-graded players and biggest takeaways from Clemson’s thrilling 42-36 win over Louisville on Saturday night:

Clemson Tigers

Quarterback grade: Deshaun Watson, 67.8

Watson had generated very little buzz around this season prior to last night’s game. He perhaps has not quite reached the elite standards he set in 2015, but he remains among the best quarterbacks overall, and specifically in key situations, in the country. Watson was far from perfect, making a couple of huge mistakes, but he always responded with a big-time throw. He looked particularly cold early on, but improved as the game progressed. The slant-and-go pattern he connected on down the left sideline was a thing of beauty. Much-improved play in pass protection from his offensive line certainly helped in this one. He was pressured on only eight of 39 dropbacks, and performed well on those plays (three of six for 42 yards, no sacks).

Top offensive performances:

WR Deon Cain, 80.6
C Jay Guillermo, 75.9
WR Mike Williams, 75.4
RT Jake Fruhmorgen, 75.2
WR Artavis Scott, 70.6

Depth at wideout ensures strong production

Clemson’s receiving corps has a strong balance of downfield threats and dynamic runners after the catch. Mike Williams is essential to everything the Tigers do offensively. He caught the game’s key touchdown, using his size to drag Trumaine Washington into the end zone. In total, he managed five catches on nine targets for 70 yards and a touchdown. Deon Cain was even more productive, catching four of five targets for 98 yards and two scores. Together they were essential to Clemson’s success, along with a more modest contribution from wideout Artavis Scott (70.6 overall).

Top defensive performances:

CB Cordrea Tankersley, 83.0
DT Dexter Lawrence, 81.7
LB Ben Boulware, 79.8
DT Carlos Watkins, 78.9
CB Ryan Carter, 78.5

Cordrea Tankersley will be a sure-fire first round pick come April if he continues to play as he has so far this season. Although his playmaking skills leave a little to be desired, his coverage skills certainly do not. Tankersley allowed only two catches on four targets for 11 yards and a pass deflection in Saturday night’s win. In total, he has given up only seven catches and 54 yards this season. Clemson has a history of producing reliable corners who never get beaten over the top, and Tankersley looks set to continue that tradition.

Louisville Cardinals

Quarterback grade: Lamar Jackson, 72.9

Electric Jackson unable to beat Clemson from the pocket

Jackson’s limitations were exposed somewhat in their key ACC matchup Saturday night. Clemson used blitz packages from exotic looks to confuse him, crowding the line of scrimmage to minimize the damage Jackson could do with his legs. Although he still cut off big chunks in the ground game — carrying 27 times for 178 yards (163 after contact), two touchdowns and eight broken tackles — Jackson was never quite able to deliver big plays consistently. The Clemson front stepped up, finding key contributions from a number of unexpected sources. They pressured Jackson on 22 of 56 dropbacks, limiting him to a QB rating of only 40.1 under pressure. Ultimately, it culminated in the Heisman favorite’s lowest-graded passer grade of the season (61.9).

Top offensive performances:

TE Cole Hikutini, 77.8
LT Geron Christian 73.3
QB Lamar Jackson, 72.9
RB Jeremy Smith, 66.0
WR James Quick, 65.0

Pass protection breakdowns undermine offensive effort

Louisville’s offensive line was exposed by a rampant Tigers’ defense. The unit gave up a combined sack, three hits and 17 hurries. Clemson generated unblocked rushers consistently with stunts up front, and won their fair share of individual matchups too. The Cardinals’ offense also struggled in max protection. Tightend Cole Hikutini gave up a hit and hurry in seven snaps, highlighting the diversity of issues up front. He made up for it somewhat as a receiver, catching seven of nine targets for 84 yards, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the issues in pass protection.

Top defensive performances:

CB Jaire Alexander, 86.6
OLB Devonte Fields, 79.5
DT Drew Bailey, 75.4
DT DeAngelo Brown, 74.8
OLB James Hearns, 74.3

Alexander cements status as No. 1 corner

Entering the game, Clemson’s receivers appeared set to dominate against Louisville’s secondary. The unit enjoyed a strong game on the whole, except when matching up with Jaire Alexander. The Cardinals’ corner gave up just one catch on five targets for 15 yards and two picks. Alexander embraced the challenge of playing on an island, competing with the physicality of Mike Williams and Deon Cain. He individually prevented Clemson from points early in the game, picking Watson off in the end zone. Alexander also ran Cain’s route for him in the fourth quarter for his second interception.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • Kason Edell

    I don’t like the new grading system, at least show us how you get the 0-100 grade. No one knows what a 67.8 grade is. It could be a -1.0 or +2.0. We’ll never know.