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Clemson versus Louisville: Game 3 Preview

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Let the conference battle begin! The Tigers take on the Cardinals in their first road test of 2015.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

I said last week if the defense dominated App State then I would declare this defense as legit.  Well, it is LEGIT, at least as long as the top 13-14 guys are playing.  That was no slouch offense the Mountaineers brought to town last week.  They had scored at least 31 in eight straight games prior to the paltry 10 they put up in the Valley.  I don't care who you are playing, that is an impressive run of offense.  Clemson showed its starting front is very physical and disruptive and the secondary is on another level with the emergence of T.J. Green to go with freaks of nature Jayron Kearse and Mack Alexander.  There is plenty to be worried about if you are an opposing offense right now.

Meanwhile, the offense had enough problems to temper the enthusiasm generated from week 1.  It surely is nice to know the defense isn't going to force us to play shoot out unless the opposing offense is just very, very good.  That being the case Saturday, the offense was afforded time to get things worked out and explode in the second quarter with big pass plays to Peake and physical running from Wayne Gallman (love it!).  It is hard to know what Elliot and Scott are really choosing to hold back so far, but a cleaner effort will be needed against Louisville's talented (if underperforming) defense.

Clemson offense versus Louisville defense: Clemson really struggled to put together offense against the Cardinals last year, even before Deshaun Watson went out of the game (though G-drop didn't help with his drop of a perfectly thrown bomb early on).  Clemson faces a 3-4 scheme for the third time in as many weeks and the talent level goes up another notch yet again.  The Cardinals really struggled on defense against the spread attack of Houston after playing pretty well against Auburn in game one.  Houston's quarterback play was vastly superior to what Auburn brought to the table and it exposed some back end problems they have.  Clemson has plenty of film of Todd Grantham's schemes against similar offensive styles to ours and there should be very little the Cards have not yet shown because of the close nature of both games.  The Cards will no doubt look to attack and disrupt the Tiger offensive line in an attempt to not allow the Tigers to exploit the clear advantage at wideout and quarterback.  Clemson must get a sharper effort up front this week after some shaky moments against App. State, especially at center.  My hope that Jay Guillermo would take over the first team center job was answered when Ryan Norton got hurt again.  Norton cannot seem to stay healthy and nearly got the franchise killed because of a terrible snap.  In the NFL, that would get you cut from the team.  At Clemson, it should be enough to make the change to big Jay.  Let's just hope the snap issue is resolved.  The Cardinals have a difference maker in Sheldon Rankins that the Tigers must account for and the Cards will run a variety of twists, stunts and blitzes (especially after watching the App. State film).  Here is hoping the Tiger offensive staff gets that cleaned up before Wednesday.  As usual, Clemson will make Louisville deal with the short passing game and run game in hopes of creating the big play opportunities over the top.  It is certain there are things the Tigers have yet shown that will be revealed this week.  How well the Tigers can execute when catching the Cardinals unaware will go a long way to determining this game.

Reading between the lines of Tony Elliot's comments this week, I would expect to see a LOT more of Zac Brooks backing up Gallman.  We all know Brooks is a threat in the passing game, and he was conspicuously absent for most of the game last Saturday despite an impressive opening game against Wofford.  I have a feeling the wraps are coming off with him and the staff has stuff that is unique to his skill set we will see this week.   Davidson was unimpressive for the second week in a row and could be headed to D.J. Howard land as the season progresses.  The Tigers will need to shore up the blocking on the perimeter screen game and, according to Elliot, do a better job recognizing run pressures and getting into the correct call pre-snap.  I'm sure I am not alone in hoping some of the running game problems last weekend were due to running a play into the teeth of a defense when a check should have been made.

Clemson defense versus Louisville offense: I've seen a lot of concern from posters on here about the defense, namely the depth.  I would agree that depth in some cases is an issue, but if injuries are avoided this defense is very good.  Venables could have left the top 12-15 guys in and made things look better statistically, but the smart move was to work new guys in and let them grow.  App. State left its starters in which was ideal for the development of the backups.  I would expect minimal substitutions in the shaky areas depth wise on Thursday.  Alexander isn't coming out and Kearse isn't either.  Boulware and Goodson will likely play every down unless it somehow gets out of hand. In actuality, Venables hasn't done much subbing in the back seven since he has been at Clemson, even last year.  Boulware and Steward were about 40-60 in snaps, Anthony played just about every meaningful snap he could when available.  Goodson and Wiggins rotated at SAM based on our being in 4-3 or nickle.  Now, Joseph will get some snaps, Boulware will play heavily and Blanks/O'Daniel will man the SAM (with Goodson sliding over if we seer the 2 tight end heavy stuff).  The real rotating occurs up front where the heavy lifting occurs.  As long as the Tigers can roll a solid 2 deep in the front four, things should be just fine for the defense.  Right now we have 3 DT's playing at a high level with Byers being serviceable as the 4th guy (until Reader returns).  Yeargin and Bryant have shown they can probably give 10-15 good snaps in a close game behind Dodd and Lawson.  Everyone that really matters, save the known losses of Wiggins and Reader, are good to go Thursday.

I had a hard time swallowing the notion that Louisville was going to just go to a spread option type attack with Jackson at quarterback.  Petrino is a guy who has always built around a pro-style dropback system with a big quarterback.  A leopard doesn't change spots that easily, and the insertion of Bolin last week has me thinking we will see a lot more of him Thursday.  However, there is talk that he really does want more option in his offense so who knows?  Louisville did nothing on offense last year until Gardner came in and was able to hit some passes.  Venables knows that stopping Radcliffe and the Cardinals' run game is the key component to this game Thursday.   I would expect Petrino to try to attack Tankersley early and test T.J. Green with the tight end/wheel route stuff.  Of course, they better get improved play from their offensive line.  Jackson had some success against Auburn mainly by scrambling away from the constant pressure they were applying.  Jacksonville State showed that outside of Mount Adams, the Auburn front is not the 85 Bears.  Clemson has done an outstanding job of stuffing offenses early in the last three games (back to the bowl game) which has allowed the Tiger offense to pull away and put the game out of reach.  The Cardinals will need to find a way to get the Tiger defense playing a lot more snaps or else the depth question won't be a question at all.  If Clemson can get a couple of scores up early on, this could get ugly.  I am a little concerned that Jackson might be able to hurt Clemson with the scramble due to the heavy man to man the Tigers play.  Auburn did a lot of that and since guys were turned and running with the WR's and such, there was a lot of room in the middle for scrambles.  Of course, Auburn didn't have the likes of Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green to hawk stuff from the safety position either.  The Cards not having James Quick at wideout is a big blow for their offense as the others are pretty inexperienced.

SPECIAL TEAMS:  Lord have mercy on my soul!  How does a team with the athletes Clemson has not cover kicks better than what we saw against App. State?  At least the return game has shown a little life in the first two weeks.  I'm not brimming with confidence in the field goal kicking after the hit and miss stuff we saw last Saturday.  Hopefully this area won't cost Clemson the game.  Of course, last year Adam Humphries took a punt to the house which was a major difference in the game, so you never know.  I'll certainly be holding my breath.  Louisville's kicker is only 2 of 5 so far this year so they can't be super confident either.

OVERALL: Clemson has a lot of guys who haven't had to play major snaps in a game like this.  They have answered the bell so far in two home games, but how will they respond on the road?  The good news is, Deshaun Watson brings the calm confidence to the table that should carry the offense while the defense has good veteran leadership at all three levels with Lawson, Boulware, and Kearse.  Louisville will need to get out in front and put pressure on the Tigers to play from behind because otherwise I just feel this game will be Clemson by 14-17 points.  Quarterback matters and Clemson has a decided advantage with #4.