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15 Thoughts On The Trip To Clemson And The Game In Death Valley

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Tyler Smith

1. This is the worst I've felt after a football loss in a long time, but it's definitely a different kind of hurt than the ones after games like UCF last year or Rutgers in '06. Those were all extremely depressing, while this one feels more disappointing. I say that because it was a win that was right there for the taking, and also because it was a win which would have meant a great deal not just to this year's team, but to the program as a whole. It wouldn't have guaranteed a BCS game or kept legitimate national title hopes alive, but it would have been the first statement win for the new era of Louisville football.

I'll be perfectly honest, I didn't offer up a game prediction Saturday morning because I thought there was a good chance that we weren't going to be able to keep things close. That opinion wasn't as much of a reflection on this team as it was of a belief that this was going to be a bad matchup at a bad time in a bad place to play. I was wrong for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that our defense is even better than I thought. That all being the case, you'd think this loss wouldn't sting as much as it does, but yet here we are having this virtual conversation.

Aside from the heartbreaking ending, I think the main reason the pain of this loss has lingered into the start of the work week is that it came about because of all the same correctible issues that had plagued the Cards during the first half of the season. The puzzling offensive struggles, the easily avoidable drive-killing penalties, the backbreaking turnovers at the worst possible time; all of that stuff that we had spent the first six weeks of the season talking about came up again on Saturday ... and yet Louisville was still one play away from walking out of Death Valley with a win.

You came into the weekend thinking that U of L was going to have to play easily its best game of the season AND get some breaks to have a shot at winning, and instead, if the Cards had just cleaned up one of their areas of concern they'd be 6-1 right now. To me, that's the worst part.

2. I can't recommend the trip to Clemson enough. If you couldn't make it last weekend, go ahead and make it a priority for 2016.

If I was asked once by a Clemson fan if I was having a good time or if I needed anything, I was asked 35 times. We probably had around 100 brief interactions with Tiger fans, and only once -- a muffled "go Tigers" from a guy walking solo after the game -- was there anything resembling a disparaging mark (the Tiger mascot also big leagued a picture request, but he appeared to be on his way somewhere important so I'll let it slide). These people take pride in their reputation for doing it the right way, and it shows.

Walking around and taking in the sights before and after the game, I definitely felt like the lifelong minor league player getting called up to the bigs for the first time.

We stayed in Anderson, which is about 15 minutes away from the stadium, and while making the drive to the game in the morning, we were sandwiched in the middle of about 50 cars or trucks that ALL had Clemson flags flying or stickers displayed prominently. The guy directly in front of us had the following items tied to the back of his truck: four coolers, Clemson cornhole boards, a satellite dish, a fan, a can of gasoline, and an exact replica of Howard's Rock.

The tailgate scene is a world we're not used to. Everyone has team-themed tents, they decorate their tailgate tables with team-specific items and orange purple flowers and tablecloths, and they all have TVs nicer than any of the ones in my house. They get there early, they get into the game on time, and then they head back to their tailgates and keep things going well after the final second has ticked off the close. There's an overwhelming sense of "this is just what we do on Saturdays," and it's pretty cool.

Again, if you have the opportunity to make the trip two years from now, do it.

3. My first thought when James Quick broke free at the end of the game was obviously, "oh my god, oh my god, oh my god." My thought probably less than a second later was, "if he gets caught, we're going to lose and I'm going to be absolutely crushed." The instant Jayron Kearse corralled him (run towards the pylon, James), I had this vision of imminent heartbreak, and it was almost too much to take because it was also the first time I'd really let myself believe that winning was possible.

Making matters worse was the first down play call, which I thought was perfect. Louisville had already gotten big and punched one in from virtually the same spot in the second quarter, and there was ample time on the clock to run the ball three times if they chose to go that route. There was going to be even less time for Clemson to get into position for a game-winning field goal now. Suddenly, winning no longer seemed possible, it seemed more than likely.

I've never seen a group of fans go from near euphoria to shock as quickly as I saw the U of L supporters in our section make the transformation after that third down spike. I'm legitimately not sure there was one person around me who didn't have their hands on their heads and their mouths open. It was just one of those beyond belief decisions that, fairly or unfairly, is probably always going to be the lasting image of that game.

I didn't even want to watch the last play, but the sense of impending doom didn't do anything to cushion the gut punch that came with the home sideline erupting when Will Gardner's pass was batted down.

I probably let out some variation of "I can't believe we lost that game" unprovoked at least 10 times during the drive home yesterday. This one has lingered and will probably continue to do so for a little bit longer.

4. That defense though.

There's no longer any question about it: this is one of the best defenses in the country, and one of the best defenses ever at Louisville. We have not seen an opposing offense put the ball in the endzone since exactly one month ago today in the 3rd quarter against Virginia. That's 17 straight quarters that the Cardinal defense has gone without allowing an offensive touchdown. It's a fact that both makes Louisville's 5-2 record sting a little bit more than it would otherwise, and that makes you excited about a final five weeks of the regular season that has the potential for some special victories.

My primary concern as we got deeper into the game on Saturday was that the defense was going to start getting discouraged by the play of the offense and hang their heads a little bit. That never happened. Every single time you felt like the defense had to make something happen in order to keep the Cards in the game, they did. When Louisville had to quiet the crowd after the worst start possible, the defense stepped up. When U of L needed to try and keep some momentum after James Quick's fumbled punt, the defense stepped up. When the Cards had to keep Clemson out of the endzone to keep any dream of winning the game alive, the defense stepped up.

The crowd at PJCS on Saturday ought to be packed and rowdy as hell if for no other reason than to show their appreciation for what this unit is doing right now.

5. This was already a tough spot for Reggie Bonnafon to be in, and the fact that his receivers let him down with some huge early drops certainly didn't help. Clemson's future pros at defensive end were already going to limit the biggest advantage Bonnafon has over Will Gardner, and the rest of the Tiger D made it pretty clear early on that they weren't going to let any sort of run game beat them. If the Cardinal offense was going to win, it was going to have do so by throwing the ball downfield, an area where Gardner obviously excelled more on Saturday.

For all the crap Garnder has gotten over the last six weeks, he should be getting some serious, serious praise today. This is a kid who could have easily pouted and hung his head after seeing his job taken by a true freshman (not to mention undoubtedly being subjected to at least some of the things being said about himself on social media). Instead, he was completely ready to answer the bell when the time came, and was two yards away from being welcomed back to Louisville as a conquering hero.

As for where the quarterback position goes from here, I'm not 100 percent sure what to tell you. Bobby Petrino said today that there is a new plan for the position, but that he wants to speak with each of the players first before letting everyone else know what that plan is. If I had to guess, my prediction would be that Gardner starts on Saturday (and for the foreseeable future), but both continue to play, and then whichever player appears to have the hot hand winds up being the guy in the second half.

It's not ideal, but it's where we are.

6. Clemson fans don't want to talk to you about basketball. Not in the least bit.

7. It must be said: with the game on the line and Will Gardner absolutely having to have time in the pocket to throw, the offensive line did its job. It certainly wasn't a perfect effort, but what the unit was able to accomplish in the final quarter or so was certainly a step in the right direction.

8. Has anyone missed a field goal against Louisville in the last seven or eight years? The only one I can remember is the South Florida miss at the end of regulation a few years back, and then we still went on to lose that game on a made kick minutes later.

I made this remark about five seconds before Ammon Lakip, a kicker we all just saw duck-hook a pair against Florida State a few weeks ago, doink one off the right post and still see it fall through the uprights to put Clemson ahead for good.

We're several years overdue for a key miss from an opposing kicker.

9. I couldn't have been more proud of the Louisville fans who made the trip down.

Mrs. CC and I had absolutely no set plans when we woke up Saturday morning, as all the people we knew who made the trip seemed to be spread out everywhere. We decided to just head towards the Beach tailgate lot, because we knew how to get there and knew there would be plenty of Cardinal fans around. After that, our plan -- as it usually is -- was just to start drinking and then play it by ear.

On a whim, I checked my Twitter mentions, saw that someone had invited us to stop by their tailgate, and noticed that the tent in the picture he'd sent was directly to our right. We decided to walk over, and it was easily the best decision we made all weekend, as our hosts were extremely openhanded with their food and beverages, and made some of the best wings I've ever had.

Without question, the highlight of the weekend came when Mrs. CC and I were both handed envelopes with this inside:

The person giving the envelopes was Ryann's father, Charlie, who, like the rest of the Tewell family, proved to be both a terrific Louisville fan and a tremendous person. The whole experience was quite moving and would have made the entire trip worth it, even if nothing else had gone according to plan.

Thankfully, that wasn't the case, as basically everything about Saturday outside of the game's final three plays was awesome. We led C-A-R-D-S chants, we swapped drinks and stories with Clemson fans, and when it was time for kickoff, we were all adequately prepared for the experience.

A big thanks to the entire tailgate group for their hospitality.

It's been like 18 years, but I swear to God I'm going to start growing again any day now.

10. After hearing horror stories all week, I was expecting to not even be able to make out who the players were from our seats. The climb to the top was painfully steep, but it also made the view much more manageable than it would have been if the steps were more appropriately staggered. We sat in the top row at Commonwealth for last year's UK game, and honestly the views from the two spots were pretty identical.

The Clemson crowd definitely lived up to the hype -- the students take up about five sections and their organized cheers are awesome -- but I couldn't help but think that a large chunk of their noise came from their speaker system. The music blasted when Louisville had the ball, often times when the offense was already lined up and Bonnafon or Garder were attempting to make checks. It would be an extremely intimidating venue without that, but it certainly helps. I know U of L has been looking into improving the sound system at PJCS for a long while, and I think now might be the time.

There was a moment at one point in the first quarter where the place was going nuts and I had to remind myself that I was at a Louisville football game. The whole weekend felt like an official baptism into the world of big-time college football.

11. I know Bonnafon has to see that blitz coming and get rid of the ball, but I'm still shocked that we elected to try and throw the ball downfield from right in front of our endzone on 3rd and long. Given our recent history in that spot, I would have bet a solid chunk of money on Petrino dialing up a simple run or screen pass. I suppose that's just another example of attempting to adjust to life as the head of a team which is best-suited to win games with defense and ball control.

12. The Louisville section we were in and the ones next to us were awesome. There's a certain bond that exists when you're road fans in a hostile environment that you can't replicate during even the most important of home games. You cheer louder, you celebrate seemingly average plays more; it's all just a way to cope with the added nerves of the environment.

I coped with my added nerves in the manner that I typically do; terrified swaying followed by over-aggressively high-fiving and hugging everyone around me after important plays (thanks for putting up with me, Gerstles). It was all so much fun, and the only positive of us losing is that I'm not sure I would have made it back to Louisville in one piece if we'd actually pulled off the upset.

Card Nation (or whatever name we've decided to go by) certainly represented itself well in its first Death Valley appearance.

13. I had no idea that Clemson fans stormed the field after every game, but thank you to the hundreds of angry Tiger fans on Twitter who let me know. I felt better about my ignorance after seeing multiple national pundits stating their surprise over the field storm at the end of their highlight packages. Apparently this tradition isn't particularly well-known outside of The Palmetto State, but hey, now we know.

14. As we were walking (the wrong way, it would turn out) back to our car, we were passed by a little girl in a Louisville shirt being pulled on the back of a cooler. The look on her face was the most tired, despondent thing I've ever seen, and I immediately felt the overwhelming urge to adopt her.

15. The pipe-dream of winning the Atlantic Division and playing for the ACC title is now (realistically) gone. While it would have been something that would have been fun to talk about for the next few weeks, I think we're pretty much right where everyone expected us to be at this point in the season.

The good news is that no one expected us to have this type of defense; the type that's not going to let you get blown out, and the type that can lead you to some enormous victories if the offense just fixes some easily correctible mistakes.

This one hurts bad, but those last five names on the schedule still provide this team with the opportunity to make this an extremely memorable and special season. There's still a lot of big-time football left to be played, and I couldn't be more excited.