If it’s possible for a reigning Heisman winner to fly under the radar, that’s what Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was doing at the beginning of this season. Jackson doesn’t interest NFL teams quite like more traditional quarterbacks out west—chiefly Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. Some, including Bill Polian, have said that Jackson has more potential as an NFL receiver than under center, and even without looking forward to the next level, other QBs like Rosen or Baker Mayfield have so far put in more heroic, attention-grabbing performances on TV so far this year.
Last night’s Louisville-Clemson matchup was a chance for Jackson to once again get Louisville, who ended last year on a three-game losing streak, in the national conversation. Instead, Jackson found himself completely dominated by a Clemson defense that proved it hasn’t lost a step and perhaps has even improved from last year’s championship unit, as the Tigers took home a 47-21 win. While the game had potential to be a thrilling sequel to one of the best college football games of last year, Louisville was out of it by the third quarter, when Jackson threw a poor, telegraphed ball right to the Clemson defense for a pick-six.
To be fair, in no way does Jackson shoulder all or even most of the blame for this loss. Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, in his first career road test, looked like the rightful heir to Deshaun Watson, getting pretty much whatever he wanted out of the Cardinal defense and combining with the rushing attack to put up uncatchable numbers. Jackson, for his part, did what he could with a limited supporting cast, showing both evasiveness and a good arm when thrust into tough situations. He made his lone meaningful touchdown look way easier than it should have:
However, in the grand scheme of the game, the Clemson defense looked like a puzzle that Jackson couldn’t solve, and with 11 guys all keyed in to stop the Heisman winner, the Louisville QB looked overmatched. With home field advantage on the Cardinals’ side, and the Tigers losing players from their championship team, Louisville looked poised to improve on its 42-36 loss last year. Instead, they looked much, much worse. Clemson, then, continues its march to the playoff, while Jackson and the Cards have to pick up the pieces of their season after losing the biggest game of their lives.
As it stands, Louisville has only one other game on the schedule against formidable competition—Florida State on the road next month, in a rematch of the 63-20 win that put Jackson on the map last season. Until that matchup, however, the Cardinals will be an afterthought. With games against Kent State and Murray State in the next two weeks, there’s really no way for Jackson to quickly reassert himself as one of the best in the NCAA. Chances to make a meaningful impression—like last night’s game—don’t come around more than a couple times a year, and it’s the burden of the best players to always make the most of them.