It was around this time last year that the Clemson Tigers faced a season defining game at night in Death Valley. The Tigers had come off an uneven but good enough performance on the road on a Thursday against Louisville and welcomed a top 10 Notre Dame team featuring a scary assortment of skill players and a young, hot shot quarterback. The Tigers came out in the torrential rain and put on a dominating first half performance before holding on for an epic victory which vaulted the team into what would be a special season.
Now the team has another top 10, in this case top 5, opponent coming to town with some scary skill guys and a young, hot shot quarterback. The Tigers are coming off a better Thursday night showing this year than last, though some uneven moments have some fans nervous and even doubting the Tigers’ chances. Have we learned nothing over the last 24 months? Folks worrying about 2013 need to remember more recent history. Clemson may very well lose this game, but it won’t be because of what happened with Winston and the ‘Noles that night. There hasn’t been any moment where a Watson led Tiger team was out of a game and I don’t expect that to start Saturday night.
Clemson offense vs. Louisville defense: I’m sure most of you have seen the graphic showing just how close the numbers of last year’s offense through this stage are to this year’s numbers. If you haven’t, trust me that it is uncanny how close they are. Deshaun hadn’t looked really like Deshaun, etc. When it came time for the team to step it up against the Irish, it did. Folks forget Clemson was a dropped Scott deep ball from being up 28-3 in that game and likely ending it then and there.
I’ll be the first to say that Clemson must execute better this week to win, but folks acting like it can’t or won’t be done surprise me a bit. Is Louisville really going to try to cover Mike Williams with one guy? How are they going to respond to the healthy dose of playbook I can assure you hasn’t been used this year? We hear Jeff Scott talk about seeing new looks not shown on film and that is pretty common this time of the year.
Auburn was a game one deal, Troy had a cupcake blowout the week before playing Clemson, and GT hadn’t faced an offense with a real pulse until last Thursday. The more we get into the season, the less of that type of thing we are going to see. This is when the real talent and ability rises to the top.
I recall Woody Dantzler and the Clemson offense looking unstoppable for a stretch in 2001, but it ran into North Carolina’s loaded defense and didn’t look the same the rest of the season. My main study of the Cardinals’ defense was from their Syracuse game because I wanted to see how they handled spread sets. There was plenty in that game to give me confidence Clemson can hurt their defensive back four. They have nearly everybody back on defense, but luckily the one guy they don’t is the guy who gave Clemson the most problems last year (Sheldon Rankins). Fields is a very good rusher off the edge and the Hyatt/Fruhmorgen combination must be able to keep him under control to force Louisville to bring extra hats to apply pressure on Watson. Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will send five a good bit, but sending more than that really opens up the chances of getting torched by a big play from the Tigers. Watson’s underrated pre-snap abilities will hopefully make a huge difference in the game.
The Tigers’ opponents this year have sold out to stop the run game and I expect more of the same from Louisville. I’ve noticed Clemson has done a lot of running into the teeth of things on first down the first few weeks. I fully expect some serious tendency breaking to go on in a game like this where the staff knows anything less than a A- to B+ performance is a loss. I have seen one true down/distance hard play action call on first down this year and it was a P/A off the option to Mike Williams vs. S.C. State. There is plenty of that in the bag just waiting to be pulled out and I expect we will see it in this game. The question will be the offensive line not busting, but the busts were down in the Auburn game when the staff stuck with the same group and the OL knew what they were up against.
It goes without saying that taking care of the ball is essential in any game but especially when the teams are evenly matched. The Cardinals defense has been good at generating interceptions and got two big one’s in last year’s game. As good as Clemson’s defense is, you can’t give an offense like this one any help. Clemson has better depth than the Cardinals, but there is no doubt that Louisville’s top 22 can line up with anybody. They were so good against Florida State, but did they peak in that game? It is hard to believe there is a look they haven’t shown after having played a game on that level. It is Clemson’s job to make them face some adversity for the first time this year with the full weight of a packed Death Valley crowd bearing down on them. Clemson will have something dialed up to try to hit a big play early in this game (as I know Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino will as well). The team drawing first blood might have a lot to say in the outcome.
It also goes without saying that the #WRU crew needs to step up and claim the title. The Cards are likely going to challenge them with single coverages, especially away from Mike Williams, and McCloud, Scott, Cain, Thompson, Overton, and Powell need to win those matchups. When they do, they need to CATCH the ball. I recall a perfectly thrown bomb from Watson early in the 2014 game that Hopper dropped. Next thing you know, Watson gets hurt and the team had to hold on for dear life offensively for the next month. The team should look across at the Cardinals impressive unit and be extra motivated to show out. Jordan Leggett should also play a major role in this game and hopefully the bevy of NFL scouts likely to attend will motivate him to play like he can.
Clemson defense vs. Louisville offense: This is truly a clash of the titans on this side of the ball. The Cardinals have been lighting up the scoreboard and have looked nearly unstoppable on offense all season. Lamar Jackson is looking like the second coming of Michael Vick, especially when he starts running and making folks look slow all around him.
Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defensive front has been as advertised and completely dominant. Teams simply have not been able to run the ball inside with any kind of sustained success and the team has still shown it can attack the passer despite losing Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd early to the NFL. Christian Wilkins has been playing like an All-American at a different position than his natural one and seems to shock the opposing team each week with his quickness and speed. Carlos Watkins has played like a man ready to make a big NFL paycheck after this year. Dexter Lawrence is second on the team in tackles...as a 6’6” 340 pound guy in the middle...just let that sink in for a minute. It is up to the Tiger front to own this matchup like they have owned it in every game since the second half of the Notre Dame game last year.
The Alabama game showed that winning up front isn’t a guarantee of victory, but it put Clemson in prime position had the secondary not lost its mind a few times. Clemson must whip the Cardinals up front and put some punishment on the wonder kid. If the Cardinals can hold up on the offensive line, the Tiger secondary and linebackers are going to be in trouble.
Clemson always sets up to stop the run at all costs. This is especially vital in this game because of how much the Cardinals’ passing attack relies on the run game setting it up. Clemson will see the veer, zone read, QB power, all kinds of bootlegs and waggles, etc. from the Cardinals’ offense. Clemson has been able to beat Louisville the last two years largely because it has shut down the running game. For all of Jackson’s gifts, and there are many, he is not a tall guy and still isn’t able to consistently handle multiple reads when his initial looks get taken away. Of course, most folks haven’t taken those away and he’s had a field day chucking deep post throws to James Quick and company or escaping the pocket for chunk runs on scrambles. If Clemson can shut down Radcliffe and the designed zone runs from Jackson, the Tigers will have a great chance at creating mistakes from the Cardinals not used to such adversity.
Clemson has been outstanding on third downs defensively largely by forcing long yardage situations where the team can feature its Dime of Doom. There will be plenty of speed on the field to handle Jackson if the Tigers can get to use that defense. The success rate of the Dime of Doom since its debut has been staggering. Tiger fans can only hope to see it out several times on Saturday night.
One of the scary things about Louisville is their tight end play. Clemson fans know that the tight end has caused problems for the defense in the past, especially in the championship game last year. Clemson’s linebackers are not particularly tall, unless Tre Lamar is on the field, and Petrino will likely look to potential mismatches in the middle with Hikutini. The Tiger secondary needs to be on point against the play-action game and not get caught peeking or the risk of giving up a cheap touchdown is very high. I definitely expect some hard play action on the Cardinals’ first drive hoping to hit a big pass and take the crowd out of the game. Clemson can’t fall victim to this against a team with this much momentum coming in. I still maintain the teams that worry me the most are the teams with elite offensive lines to match up against the Clemson defensive line. My least amount of confidence going into games last year were against Notre Dame and Alabama for this reason. Even in those situations, the Tiger DL got the better of the matchup. Louisville is a much improved team this year but that OL is not on the level of last year’s Irish and Crimson Tide.
Special Teams: Clemson has shown great improvement in this phase so far this year. It still isn’t without warts, but I’m not holding my breath nearly like I was last year. This phase could very well decide a game like this where the teams are pretty even and both have shown some explosiveness in the return game. This phase could go a long way in determining the winner as it has the last two years. Adam Humphries’ punt return was absolutely essential in the 2014 game, and the Cardinals put themselves into the game last year with a kick return but hurt themselves with poor kicking also. This game could come down to a field position flip, big return, or critical kicking game mistake. Clemson needs to be on the plus side here for sure. I feel good about having a kicker who has been through some fire, though Heugel isn’t yet the Catman...
Overall: I heard Will Merritt on the radio Wednesday evening talking about this game. I nearly threw up in my car hearing him proclaim that Clemson’s only chance in this game is to “control the ball on offense.” Last time I checked, the Tigers haven’t lost a home game in over two full seasons. I can recall a certain Orange Bowl facing an offense more loaded than the Cardinals with the dynamic flavor of the month at quarterback. Venables and his defense promptly ended Braxton Miller’s career at the position that night. Some folks are acting like Clemson is some wounded puppy needing mercy to survive. Draw yourselves up like men! Have faith that your team will be prepared and will take the fight to the opponent. Clemson has more than enough firepower to play with these guys and will rise to the occasion. Folks worrying about 2013 FSU shouldn’t. If the 2016 Cardinals are that special, then so be it, but I’m not buying it. Clemson wears the crown in this conference and it will be a battle like Helm’s Deep for anyone in this league to take it! Plus, there is no way the Oculus will stand for effrontery!
Clemson 35 Louisville 24