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Film Preview: Louisville Defense

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Buckle up.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Step aside Clemson vs FSU (for now), the ACC game of the year snuck its way into early October! What I called the easiest and dullest home schedule in living memory suddenly finds Clemson as an underdog in one of the biggest games in Death Valley history. Clemson brings the superior roster; Louisville brings unparalleled production in a battle of hyped quarterbacks.

Despite combining the current #1 ranked S&P defense with what was supposed to be #1 ranked offense — in a stadium where Clemson almost never seems to lose — Clemson is so heavily bet against that the line swung 5 points in Louisville’s direction. Many of us have little hope the Tigers’ offensive line can block competently enough for Watson and company to even have a chance to keep up with the as of yet unstoppable Louisville offense. Such despair reminds me of my favorite scene in my favorite movie, the scene which likely won Return of the King the 2003 Oscar for Best Picture (among an Academy record 11 Oscars for the film that year but I digress):

Deshaun Watson has been Faramir of late. Doubters and haters on all sides, facing a seemingly suicidal task to defend his home. WELL GUESS WHAT. FARAMIR SURVIVED, REGROUPED, AND KICKED ASS DESPITE THE HATERS BACK HOME THANKS TO HELP FROM HIS BUDDIES. THIS IS DEATH VALLEY AND WE ARE THOSE BUDDIES.

LOUISVILLE IS THAT HORDE OF ORCS WHO THINK THEY CAN MARCH RIGHT IN AND SQUAT ON THE PINNACLE OF FOOTBALL CIVILIZATION WHILE THE POPULACE QUIVERS IN FEAR. NO SIR. CLEMSON DOES NOT QUIVER IN FEAR WITH THE CAVALRY OF DEATH VALLEY CHARGING BEHIND IT.

Hang on this gets weirder.

While this is not the de facto division title game which earned last year’s label against FSU, the magnitude of the atmosphere and the fact that Louisville can essentially wrap up the division with a win necessitates that I dub this matchup...2016’s BEER TRUCK GAME:

Look I never even watched wrestling but my friend Bubba did so that makes me an expert just by having a friend who willingly goes by Bubba. ANYWAY. THE SYMBOLISM RUNS RAMPANT HERE IN THE MOST LIT MONOLOGUE OF ALL TIME. DABO IS COMIN’ DOWN THE HILL LIKE STONE COLD IN THE BEER TRUCK AND ALTHOUGH WE HAVE THE BELT THIS YEAR EVERYONE SEEMINGLY GAVE IT TO LOUISVILLE ALREADY. IF YOU AREN’T HYPED AND MAD THEN YOU ARE WRONG. START YELLING. BEER TRUCK GAME.

Talk About Football Already Nerd

Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham brings a unit which has seemingly handcuffed Clemson in its two previous match-ups. Furthering the challenge for Clemson is its offense has yet to match the productivity it enjoyed along the offensive line which made the offense so deadly over the course of 2015.

In 2014 and 2015 each, Louisville decided to take away the deep ball with high safeties:

In 2014, Watson left the game early and Clemson snuck away with a victory despite never scoring a touchdown on offense or even showing many signs of life on that side of the ball. In 2015, the low score was rather misleading, since Clemson again was forced to play patient, mistake-free football in order to find yards. Clemson indeed found success on the ground and down the middle of the field vs the same high safety look. This was the first time in recent memory we saw Clemson show commitment and effectiveness with its inside run game against legitimate competition, and it was the biggest revelation on the way to the national championship game.

Here in 2016, the offense has yet to connect on the deep ball or find success on the ground, presenting a viable option for Louisville to confidently defend Clemson: they can sit back and guard against the inevitable and overdue deep ball connection without worrying about Clemson gashing them on the ground. In other words they won’t need to stack the box to take away the run and can then adequately cover deep routes downfield. If Louisville can take away the run without bringing its safeties down, it will be a long, long night for Clemson, who must then hope Watson can work magic we have rarely seen this season.

Scheme

Everything begins up front where Louisville technically employs a 3-4, but hybrid players blur the line between a 3-4 and 4-3 under. Grantham likes to bring five rushers more often than not, and with a talented secondary likely playing two deep safeties, Louisville is more than capable of holding up against the deep ball despite throwing extra rushers into the backfield.

Louisville’s 3-4 even, with each OLB on the line prepared to rush. Notice safety Josh Harvey-Clemons at linebacker depth because UL was committed to stopping Dalvin Cook. UL likely won’t need to load the box to overwhelm a bad Clemson offensive line.
Even when FSU found itself hopelessly behind, Louisville still brought Harvey-Clemons down frequently. If we see this Saturday night, Clemson will have to hit the deep ball.

And if you’re wondering why Louisville likes to bring Harvey-Clemons down so much, well, look no further:

This is a man with Jayron Kearse measurables but far more strength and speed.

As I mentioned, Louisville likely won’t load the box simply because they won’t have to unless Clemson’s ground game wakes up. While admittedly many of Clemson’s struggles up front have come from mixing personnel in an effort to build depth along the line, we can’t expect the five starters to suddenly play great football, much less for the entire game.

Louisville has to fear Watson and his receivers far more than RB Wayne Gallman and the offensive line right now, so while they love to let Harvey-Clemons fly in on run support, there’s no need to if they can corral the Clemson run game with two high safeties. No, if Louisville loads the box it’s because they expect run or Clemson has (gasp) found success on the ground.

The Florida State blowout, though, wasn’t the best game to see the looks and alignments Louisville will likely throw at Clemson; differing scheme and an insurmountable margin made much of the film irrelevant to Clemson. For a better picture of the Louisville defense we can expect to see Saturday, I looked at their film vs Syracuse, who found itself similarly boat-raced but hopes to implement an uptempo spread more similar to Clemson:

Here Louisville shows a 4 man rush and 2 man under. This is closer to what we can expect from Grantham vs Clemson’s 11 personnel.

Against spread sets, Louisville finds a way to play conservatively on the back end but keep Harvey-Clemons in the box, similar to how Clemson used Jayron Kearse in its dime of doom as a box safety the past two years... but Louisville uses him as a Will linebacker in a 4-2-5 nickel look:

Josh Harvey-Clemons plays Will linebacker on a standard down. I repeat, a strong safety plays weak side linebacker on a standard down.

Against Louisville’s nickel and supposed high safeties, Clemson must find room for Gallman to take pressure off Watson and open up the offense like we haven’t seen all year. This means heavy doses of power, hopefully with zone read attached to it like Syracuse did on one of Clemson’s staples, the bucksweep:

We see Clemson pull two linemen on a bucksweep very often, but almost never with zone read attached. Against Louisville’s front, the Tigers will need every wrinkle available and I expect to finally see some zone read.

The versatility best exemplified by Harvey-Clemons is what makes this unit so good, and coincidentally is the perfect counter to the versatility Jordan Leggett provides Clemson on offense. Out of its base 11 personnel, Clemson can employ countless formations without substituting. With players like Fields and Harvey-Clemons, Louisville is better suited to match Clemson’s versatility than almost any other opponent could hope to be; especially considering Leggett’s well-documented struggles as a blocker and his surprisingly slow start through the air.

Bottom Line

Taking these factors into account, it’s hard for me to regain my optimism in the Clemson offense this week. Clemson’s line probably can’t handle Louisville’s aggressive front, and with two deep safeties Louisville can afford to play tight with its corners and take away the short routes and sweeps which have worked for Clemson thus far while still defending the deep ball with its safeties. And that’s before we even consider their versatility. As such, I don’t expect Clemson’s offense to return to form unless Watson has another Alabama-esque game. Which, given his talent and especially his mentality (having a challenger only makes him better), I actually find quite likely. Watson is capable of carrying the offense, and against this defense I expect he will have to. But will it be enough against Lamar Jackson?

Not to steal too much thunder from Dbbm and his preview, but I think it will be. The laziest question floating around all week has been, “what will Clemson do to stop Jackson?” The answer is quite simple if you’ve ever watched Clemson’s defense: nothing different. Like Louisville, Clemson is better suited to stop the opposing quarterback than anyone on the schedule and will enjoy more defensive success than anyone has and likely anyone will over the remainder of the season.

Clemson plays primarily quarters, cover 3, and man cover 1. Quarters and cover 3 each have multiple defenders watching the QB in zone, and man cover 1 has the luxury of a linebacker who can sit in the middle underneath or spy, and a second one if the running back is in pass protection. As always though, Clemson’s dominance begins up front, where the biggest mismatch in the entire game can be found in Louisville’s offensive line vs Clemson’s defensive line. Clemson enjoys both outstanding penetration and discipline up front, and seeing what they did to Georgia Tech should only generate further confidence in the unit. Because of this, I have plenty of faith Clemson will contain Louisville on the ground; my concern is busting in the secondary, giving Jackson the wide open passes he needs in order to find consistent success through the air.

Clemson has long been prone to secondary busts, and no quarterback generates and benefits from busts more than Jackson. If the line does its usual thing and the safeties don’t forget their responsibilities in the air when Jackson rolls out, I like Clemson’s chances to keep this a relatively low-scoring affair, as in relative to the expected shootout which dominate the narrative in every high-level quarterback matchup, at least.

Over the past two weeks I’ve moved from expecting a Louisville blowout, to a Louisville close win, to a toss up. Each quarterback has the talent to erase all the failures of his supporting cast against great defensive fronts, but one quarterback has experience in big games, the NFL weapons, the elite defensive line on his sideline, overall better roster, and one of the top crowds in the world behind him. Watson has been here before, and there is no one better under the brightest lights. It’s the BEER TRUCK GAME, and Clemson is too good on the defensive line and at quarterback to lose at home.

Clemson 30, Louisville 24