LOUISVILLE, KY. -- The home fans filled Papa John's Cardinal Stadium with black on Saturday in what was billed as the biggest game in Louisville's history.
But by the end of the third quarter, much of the black was out. As in, on the way home in the midst of a brutal 47-21 assault on Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals.
This was supposed to be a war because that's the way it had gone in the previous three meetings. But the white-knuckle moments gave way the brass knuckles that Clemson's defense used to make this a positively miserable night for Louisville's explosive offense.
"We had two goals tonight: One was to get the job done, and the next was to leave no doubt," said Dabo Swinney, whose team accomplished both missions in winning for the 34th time in the last 36 games and claiming its 11th straight road win.
Here's one storyline that might have been overlooked heading into this one: Maybe Clemson brought a little extra juice to the Bluegrass State after watching Deshaun Watson watch Jackson pick up the Heisman Trophy last December.
Brent Venables' defense, hanging on by a thread last year after watching Jackson slice it up in the second half of a 42-36 victory, gave a stiff-arm to the Heisman winner to make a mockery of widespread predictions of another thriller.
Jackson played the type of game that many expected of Kelly Bryant, who was faced with his first road test. But it was Bryant, the first-year starter who was third string last year when these teams met, who delivered the command performance.
"He is a problem," Swinney said of Bryant. "What y'all are seeing is what we saw in camp."
Jackson seemed off from the start throwing the ball, and it wasn't long before the Tigers were able to work their way into his head. As otherworldly as Jackson is in the open field, he has to get there first. And Clemson's overwhelming play on the defensive line, backed up by excellent speed to the edges, suffocated Jackson.
Clemson amassed 613 total yards, 297 on the ground, and had the ball for more than 35 minutes. Louisville had 433 yards, but that total was highly deceptive; before the Cardinals drove 75 yards for a touchdown to make it 33-14 early in the fourth quarter, Clemson had run 70 plays to Louisville's 39 and totaled 436 yards to Louisville's 190.
In other words: Total domination. And it very easily could have been much worse, because the offense had a habit of hiccups that derailed promising drives.
A defense that lost starting safety Tanner Muse to a targeting penalty in the first half totaled 10 tackles for loss and had six sacks from six different players.
Swinney and the offensive coaches came into the season telling their players that the standard did not change despite the loss of so many critical weapons who made the offense unstoppable the previous two years.
So if the folks inside the program have been saying all along that this offense will remain explosive and hard to stop, this game marked the point where everyone on the outside readjusts their view of this bunch as one that's still very much a force to be feared.
The defense has already built a reputation as a group that just keeps coming at you in wave after wave of talent regardless of who leaves.
Now the offense is quickly cultivating the same name for itself, not just at quarterback and receiver but also at running back. Any fears that came from lack of productivity at the position against Auburn were thoroughly dispelled as four backs piled up 271 yards on the ground, highlighted by Tavien Feaster's 92 big-boy yards on 10 carries and punctuated by Travis Etienne's 81 yards out of a cannon and to the end zone late that made it 47-21.
"There was a lot of talk going into this game, rightfully so, about their quarterback and our defense," said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. "We really challenged the offense. Our guys took a little offense to that. Even though they've got a great player on offense, we felt like we had the best offense."
Bryant was 22-of-32 passing for 316 yards, one less yard than Jackson. But much of Jackson's yards through the air came after Clemson had pulled away.
The rout was on when Dorian O'Daniel stepped in front of a Jackson pass in the flats and took it 44 yards the other way for a Pick 6 by No. 6, putting Louisville in a 26-7 hole with 8:57 left in the third quarter.
And Jackson, for some reason still in the game late, was extremely lucky the Tigers didn't get two off him. Denzel Johnson dropped an interception that was right in his hands with the Cardinals threatening to score a meaningless touchdown, and there was nothing but green grass between him and the end zone.
And there were nothing but red seats where all those black shirts were before.