You may remember in Ryan Kantor's Calculating Wins column that I gave Clemson only a 55% chance of victory at Louisville, tied for the lowest I applied to any of our games this season. Yet it was the situation (short week, Thursday night road game) that concerned me more than the Louisville team itself. On one hand, the Cardinals' do not look great on film. I struggled to find areas where I think they can consistently challenge us. But on the other hand, as mediocre as they looked against a criminally overrated Auburn team and a less-talented Houston team, Louisville arguably should be undefeated instead of winless.
Like Wofford and Appalachian State, Louisville runs a 3-4 base defense under Todd Grantham. Their defense is bolstered by a silly amount of transfers with troubled pasts (Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons), who bore the bulk of Louisville fans' preseason hopes of fielding another stout defense.
Of all the positional match-ups in tonight's game, our only clear disadvantage is the Clemson offensive line vs the UL defensive line. Once again, a nose guard will challenge Clemson's centers and likely stifle Clemson's running game. We all wanted Jay Guillermo to supplant Ryan Norton, but to lose Norton to injury is a serious blow to our depth at one of our weakest positions on offense. We dread the necessity of Watson's involvement in the run game, but tonight we will likely need the zone read for the offense to reach its potential.
Most of the media hype focuses on Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense vs Louisville's defense; an interesting matchup, certainly, but not necessarily where I expect to determine tonight's outcome. Bobby Petrino is known for a pro style passing attack, but apparently is so concerned about his OL that he decided on a zone read offense in an effort to sustain a running game. Lamar Jackson is the expected starter, and Louisville's strategy with him is my focus in this column.
Creating a running game
Notice the interior of Louisville's offensive line on its backside before Radcliffe takes the handoff? Lamar Jackson and the zone read are Louisville's stop-gap.
Standard running plays do no not work without adequate line play, and standard drop-back passing too often devolves into Jackson scrambling 10-20 yards backward when pressured or when the primary receiver is covered. This early in his freshman season, Jackson is a pure zone read quarterback -- albeit with a great arm and outstanding speed. Louisville ran plenty of inverted veer against Auburn, and it was extremely effective even while Auburn's DL dominated Louisville's OL throughout the night.
A take on the zone read we often used with Tajh Boyd, the inverted veer simply uses the quarterback as the inside running threat while the running back (Louisville's Brandon Radcliff) sweeps the outside.
An reverse angle of the inverted veer diagrammed above. The running back sweeps and the quarterback runs off tackle, depending on whether #42 slow-plays the QB or jumps on the sweep.
I've discussed zone read concepts ad nauseam this season, so you get the point: Radcliff gained an easy 20 yards on the edge thanks to his speed and excellent perimeter blocking. Most importantly with the zone read, it victimized an aggressive defensive line like I expect to see from Clemson against Louisville's poor OL.
Make Jackson throw
In the play above, Jackson evades the rush and then heaves an ill-advised deep shot to a tight end who cannot catch up to the pass, allowing an easy interception and long return. If Houston pressured Jackson this much, Clemson should pressure him incessantly and force him into bad throws or throwaways -- provided we also stay in our rushing lanes and don't allow him to scramble. Given Louisville's lack of consistency through the air and our stout pass defense, I expect Venables to employ a QB spy more often than usual.
Louisville's zone read and the play-action off of it are the likely determinants in tonight's game. Even if our own OL plays poorly, Clemson proved it can still score thanks to Watson and outstanding receivers. Clemson will score, the question is: can Louisville keep up? We will find the answer in how well Clemson handles Jackson's zone read.
Fortunately for Clemson, we possess the personnel on defense to shut down Louisville, barring play action coverage busts. Louisville is too young at quarterback and receiver to consistently challenge many secondaries through the air, not to mention an elite group like Clemson's. And to a running quarterback, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green are certified nightmares. Even when/if backup and prototypical QB Kyle Bolin enters the game to lift the Cardinals' passing attack, I do not expect Louisville to sustain success on offense. I have higher expectations for the result, but will hedge and call a victory in the neighborhood of 31-17.