Sequels to beloved classics have a lot to live up to, so storytellers have to up the ante every time out, and that’s a hell of a high mountain to climb. For every “Godfather II” or “Avengers: Endgame,” there’s a “Jurassic Park: Yep, Dinos Still Eat People” or “Pirates of the Caribbean: Look, Just Give Us Your Money.”
Sunday’s game between the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens brings us the sequel to one of the great man-to-man battles in recent college football history: the October 2016 showdown between the Clemson Tigers of Deshaun Watson and the Louisville Cardinals of Lamar Jackson. That particular game went Watson’s way, while the season went Jackson’s; he ended up winning the Heisman later that year. (Watson got the nice consolation prize of a national championship.)
The score — Clemson 42, Louisville 36 — doesn’t even begin to tell the story of this classic. The box score starts to hint at it, though. Louisville was No. 3 coming into the game, Clemson No. 5. (Yes, two ACC teams in the top 5. Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it?) The teams got the primetime marquee slot on Oct. 1, and delivered in every way.
Clemson-Louisville by the numbers
At the time, Watson was the grizzled vet and Jackson the heralded freshman. Louisville was riding high, but hadn’t yet faced a squad the caliber of the Tigers. Clemson posted an 18-point halftime lead, but Louisville fought its way back, taking the lead late. But Watson shook off his second-half woes to find Jordan Leggett on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 3:14 remaining on the clock. That put Clemson ahead once again.
As the game wound down, Louisville ended up with the ball on their own 25, down six points with barely three minutes remaining. A near-NFL-caliber Clemson defense stood between them and the end zone, and the defense ultimately held strong. Louisville fell just three yards short of a touchdown, one yard short of a first down, when a fourth-and-12 desperation pass ended with Louisville’s James Quick getting pushed out of bounds with 33 seconds left on the clock just before he could reach the first-down line.
The overall game stats remain astounding. Watson aired it out, throwing for 306 yards and five touchdowns (plus three interceptions) on 31 attempts. He also rushed 14 times for 91 yards. Jackson, for his part, ended the day with 295 yards passing and another 162 yards rushing, accounting for three touchdowns himself. He threw the ball 44 times and carried it another 31; it’s tough to conceive of any game plan that would have put the ball in his hands any more than that.
What came afterward: ever-greater success
Both would get drafted soon after that, long after players they’ve since exceeded. The Bears would like a do-over on the Trubisky-over-Watson pick in 2017, and virtually every team passed over Jackson; he went last in the first round of the 2018 draft.
Flash forward to today. Along with Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Watson and Jackson rank among the top three in the NFL MVP race at the halfway point. Houston and Baltimore could well be playing for a first-round bye in the playoffs. There’s more on the line than just a head-to-head matchup, but that’ll still be a draw.
For Sunday’s rematch, it’ll be Watson on the road, as the Texans will travel to Maryland. Per BetMGM, the Ravens are 4.5-point favorites. Both quarterbacks have outplayed their defenses — Baltimore and Houston both rank in the middle of the pack in yards and points allowed — and so both can probably count on running up some huge numbers.
It’s far too early to call Watson-Jackson the Brady-Manning of the 2020s, but it’s not outlandish to think we could do that one day. Settle in for Sunday, friends, this is going to be a good one.
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