On a night where he was dealt the most painful team life of his still relatively short college career, Lamar Jackson proved to the sports world something it was pretty sure it already knew: the Louisville quarterback is the best player in college football.
Despite facing the most hostile environment he’s likely to see at any point in his playing career and having to go up against a Clemson defense that entered the October 1 game as the top defense in the country according to most metrics, Jackson was spectacular. He accounted for 457 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, led UofL all the way back from a 28-10 halftime deficit and did everything in his power to get the Cardinals into the endzone on the game’s final drive.
Not that any of this was any consolation to Jackson, who was as dejected as you might imagine in the moments immediately following Louisville’s 42-36 defeat.
“I don’t like this feeling,” Jackson said. “We still have a lot to play for though. We don’t plan on losing any more.”
If the Cardinals do indeed win their final seven games of the regular season and put themselves in a position to be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff, Jackson will need to at least come close to maintaining the historic pace he has set through the season’s first five weeks.
At the moment, Jackson is on pace to finish the 2016 regular season (12 games) with 5,550 total yards and 68 total touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel – arguably the most-discussed college football player of the past decade – finished his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 2013 with 5,116 total yards and 47 touchdowns…and that was over 13 games. In 14 games over the course of 2010 season, Auburn superstar Cam Newton totaled 4,327 yards and 50 touchdowns.
Jackson doesn’t have to be a superhero over the next two months to take home the highest-profile individual award in all of sports; he just has to be somewhere in the realm of the same player he’s been through the season’s first five weeks. That notion was fully reinforced following the Clemson game.
Following a contest where his team was handed its first loss of the season and Jackson himself accounted for a season-low three touchdowns, the Cardinal QB’s odds (according to oddsmaker Bovada) stayed exactly the same. He remains the heavy 2/5 favorite to win the award, comfortably ahead of Tiger quarterback DeShaun Watson (5/1), who tossed five touchdowns but also three interceptions in his team’s win.
For a half at least, it looked as though both Jackson’s individual aspirations and his team’s hopes of winning a national title were going to be eviscerated in Death Valley. Jolted by the noise created by the 82,000 fans in attendance, Louisville made uncharacteristic mistake after uncharacteristic mistake, putting itself in a 28-10 halftime hole that made the possibility of an embarrassing blowout loss in a primetime game on ABC frighteningly real.
It was very much a fight or flight moment for Jackson, who came out of the locker room swinging. He completed 17 of 24 passes in the game’s final two quarters, made ridiculous plays with his legs, carried his team to 26 straight points and then brought them within three yards of what would have been one of the program’s greatest all-time triumphs.
It was a performance that earned the respect of everyone watching, including the men in orange and white who had been trying to slow him down.
“He’s a freak,” said Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware. “I was very confident going in that our scheme would shut him down, but hats off to that dude. He’s a freak athlete and he exposed us in some areas. It’s hard to stop him. A lot of times, we had good leverage on him and he just out ran us or he made a play. He’s the best player I’ve ever played against.”
Boulware won’t be the last Cardinal opponent to express that sentiment this season. Despite its first setback, the best player in college football and his team are far from finished. VT