Despite another blowout win, questions remain for Trevor Lawrence and Clemson

Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) walks off the field after the game against the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium. (USAT)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Trevor Lawrence threw two passes in the first quarter here Saturday that his coach described as “just, like, the worst football ever.” They were forced passes into the Louisville end zone, delivered into the hands of Cardinals safeties who didn’t have to do anything special to intercept them. They were shockingly bad reads and decisions from a guy who, last year, was as good as any college freshman has ever looked throwing the ball.

“I just kind of threw it straight to them,” Lawrence said.

And, ultimately, it didn’t matter at all. Maybe those mistakes will matter a lot at some point in the season — after Christmas? — but for now Clemson’s schedule offers a luxurious margin for error.

Clemson went on to pound Louisville, 45-10, putting together three authoritative quarters after the opening mayhem. It was victory No. 22 in a row for the defending national champions, with no end to the winning in sight. From here the Tigers will face zero currently ranked teams before a presumed ACC championship game against a cadaver from the Coastal Division.

Maybe there is an Illinois or a South Carolina lying in the weeds waiting for the Tigers — like, maybe actually South Carolina, which hosts Clemson on Nov. 30 — but it seems unlikely. Without much resembling the juggernaut that Clemson was at the end of the 2018 season, the 2019 Tigers still have the easiest path to the playoff of any team in America.

Once there, they will have to tighten things up. Especially their star quarterback.

Dabo Swinney told Lawrence his two interceptions were “stupid,” then he told him to forget about it. Which Lawrence did, with considerable aplomb. His first-quarter pass efficiency rating was minus-3.49 (comically bad). His efficiency rating over the next three quarters was 207.80 (extremely good).

Lawrence made some throws that no other college quarterback can make, on his way to 17 completions in 22 attempts for 224 yards and three touchdowns. He ran the ball effectively (10 carries for 47 yards). He led Clemson to 42 points in three quarters, squeezing the hope out of Louisville one scoring drive at a time.

“I’m kind of proud of myself for looking ahead and forgetting the plays before,” the sophomore said.

The rest of us can look back long enough to see that in one key area, sophomore Lawrence isn’t measuring up to freshman Lawrence.

He’s throwing interceptions at four times the rate of last year — 4.2 percent of his passes have been picked, as opposed to one percent in 2018. Everything else is trending along similarly to last season: completion percentage, touchdown percentage, yards per attempt. There are still a ton of good plays, but there are more bad plays.

Lawrence probably doesn’t need to force some of the plays he’s attempted to make — not with running back Travis Etienne (more than 300 rushing yards the past two games) and his physically superior collection of wide receivers. The play sophomore Justyn Ross made in the first half, soaring above everyone else in the end zone to come down with a touchdown reception, illustrated Clemson’s talent at that position.

But with his arm strength, it’s tempting. Who wants to check down when you can fire rockets all over the field?

Lawrence is a physical specimen, 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, with the looks of a Nordic god. But when you get past the size and the flowing hair and look him in the face, you remember that he’s 20 years old — and few things in life are less predictable than 20-year-old males.

Even one with the poise and confidence of Trevor Lawrence can be susceptible to momentary brain lapses. They just come as an outsized shock when the expectation of perfection, or something near to it, has been put upon a player.

“People do kind of expect [perfection],” Lawrence said. “But I definitely do think I can play better. I do need to make better plays, be smarter with the ball.”

Swinney is a great confidence builder in his players, and he had some apt analogies for his quarterback postgame. He noted former Tigers hero Deshaun Watson’s penchant for interceptions his sophomore and junior seasons. He cited (and slightly mangled) a Kobe Bryant quote from five years ago: “I would go 0-30 before I would go 0-9.”

In other words, a confident player doesn’t worry about failure and always thinks that the next play will be a great one.

“Really proud of Trevor,” Swinney said. “He was about as bad in the first quarter as he could be. … But he don’t go in a shell, he don’t count. He just responds. … I love that.”

Said Lawrence: “Keep firing.”

As a whole, Clemson is firing more cleanly this month after a one-point escape at North Carolina on Sept. 28. Winning margin the last two games: 66 points. There should be more routs in the near future.

Eventually, though, the Tigers’ leading man and anointed superstar will have to play a cleaner game against a better opponent.

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