- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Louisville linebacker James Burgess expected the game with Clemson would come down the fourth quarter. He just figured it would be the Cardinals who came out on top.

Instead, it was the Tigers who ran off the field with a 23-17 victory Saturday by halting a final Louisville touchdown drive just shy of the end zone in the final minute.

“Yeah, we were almost there,” Burgess said. “They just made one more play more than us.”

It might’ve been safety Jayron Kearse running down Louisville receiver James Quick on a 73-yard pass play to Tigers 8 when he appeared headed for a touchdown. Or it could’ve been linebacker Ben Boulware stopping tailback Dominique Brown for a 1-yard loss on second and goal. Then again, it was most likely defensive tackle DeShawn Williams knocking down Will Gardner’s pass two plays later with 21 seconds left.

“It was just a tough play,” Gardner said. “They played the routes good. Not really much you can do right there.”

Burgess said the Cardinals propped each other up in the locker room, not wanting to let this demoralizing loss linger more than their trip back to campus. “Everybody was speaking to each other so this game doesn’t break us as a team,” he said. “It’s a long season. We still got a lot of games to play and a lot of games to win.”

Clemson (4-2, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) used Adam Humphries 72-yard punt return touchdown, Grady Jarrett’s fumble-recovery score and three field goals by Ammon Lakip to hold off the Cardinals (5-2, 3-2).

“That right there is what it’s all about,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of his team’s third straight win. “Seeing a group of guys play like a family and have each other’s back.”

The victory came when freshman phenom quarterback Deshaun Watson broke his hand after hitting a helmet and had to come out in the second quarter. Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris was unsure how long Watson might be out.

That means senior Cole Stoudt, who lost his job to Watson three weeks ago, was back behind center. He was dealing with a shoulder injury sustained last week against North Carolina State and did not practice much during the week. But he said he was prepared when his second chance came.

Stoudt struggled against Louisville’s No. 1-ranked defense, throwing for 162 yards with an interception and getting sacked three times. “It wasn’t pretty,” he said. “But we found a way to win.”

Stoudt and the offense might want to congratulate the defense and special teams for this one. Clemson held Louisville to 264 yards and collected four sacks, including the 29th career take down by defensive end Vic Beasley - moving him atop Clemson’s all-time list ahead of standouts Michael Dean Perry and the late Gaines Adams.

“This shows we’re one of the better defenses in the country,” Beasley said. “We’ve been playing great since Florida State week. We’ve been putting it together ever since.”

Clemson looked like it had found its offensive rhythm on its final drive, Stoudt moving the Tigers 68 yards in almost six minutes for Lakip’s final field goal from 21 yards out.

But the Cardinals got the ball back one final time and almost made Clemson pay for not putting more points on the board. Will Gardner found James Quick for a 73-yard pass to Clemson’s 8.

On first down, Gardner connected with Kai De La Cruz on a pass to the Tigers 1. Dominique Brown, though, was stopped for 1-yard loss by linebacker Ben Boulware and - out of time outs - Gardner was forced to spike the ball on third down to stop the clock.

Gardner rolled to his right on fourth down, seeking Eli Rogers in the end zone. But Williams got his hands up to knock away the pass.

“We’re built for stuff like that,” Williams said. “We’ve been through so much, we were ready for that.”

Stoudt snuck forward on the final snap and Clemson fans swarmed the field in celebration of a third consecutive victory.

“We just didn’t make enough plays early in the game offensively to give us a chance to take a lead,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said.

Clemson drew 81,500 to Death Valley, all to watch five-star freshman Watson perform as he has the previous few games when he accounted for 1,088 yards and 11 touchdowns. The air rushed from the arena, though, when Watson ran to the sidelines holding his throwing hand.

Stoudt, the backup to record-setting Tajh Boyd the previous three seasons, had started Clemson’s first three games before Watson took over early in a 23-17 overtime loss at Florida State.

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