Louisville’s offense is more than just Lamar Jackson. Brandon Ratcliff is the most explosive running back no one is talking about. Senior TE Cole Hikutini won the John Mackey Tight End of the Week award for his efforts against Marshall. James Quick has shown himself more than capable of torching opposing secondaries. The offensive line is experienced across the board. Jackson is the highlight of the team, and thus far the season, but there are more than enough complementary pieces to win the game.
Bobby Petrino has never considered himself a spread coach. Most of the time there will be three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back on the field. Plenty of times he will feature a second tight end or a second running back. Against Syracuse, for example, they opened up with a two tight end pistol look, followed with 21 I-formation, and then motioned out of 11 personnel into empty. Lamar Jackson will align under center, in the pistol and in the shotgun. Expect a variety of looks and personnel packages from an offense talented and deep enough to pull off being truly multiple.
The threat of running the ball is integral to the offense and contrary to perception Petrino claims he’d rather run than throw the ball. The running game, and the offense, are based around inside zone. Louisville, much like Clemson, will vary whether they block the defensive end or read him and use the tight end to lead block. Against a defensive line with a serious talent advantage vs its offensive line, expect the defensive ends to be read early and often. It only takes a defensive end making one mistake for Jackson to burn an entire defense and the majority of his rushing yardage has come on this play.
Louisville also runs power, both the inverted veer variety and (far more often) with a tight end kicking out the end and the running back taking the ball off tackle. Inside zone, power, counter, outside zone and a toss play run to the tight end side makes up the majority of the running game. Direct snap designed runs for Lamar Jackson aren’t a major factor as you might expect, almost all of his running come off of inside zone.
Louisville’s running game is protected by the best play action game in the country. The majority of the damage Petrino’s team has done through the air so far has come from deep throws off of play action looks. A mobile quarterback with an arm as strong as Jackson’s is a nightmare, add in a run fake and it’s often a touchdown.
In many ways the ability of Louisville’s offensive line to handle Clemson’s defensive line will define this game. Lamar Jackson has looked otherworldly so far. He’s also had the benefit of an exceptional run game and time in the pocket pretty much every time he drops back to throw. Look how much time there is on this three corners concept.
Watkins or Lawrence bursting through the middle of the line could turn that play from a touchdown to an eight yard loss. If the defensive line, which it must be noted has a large talent advantage over the Cardinals offensive line, is capable of rushing Jackson’s throws this could be a very different game. If the defensive tackles can shut down inside running, the threat of zone read keepers and roll out passes (the plays on which Jackson has built his Heisman campaign) become much less dangerous. If the inside zone dive isn’t dangerous it becomes much harder, if not impossible, for Lamar to break off long runs on the keeper. Look no further than Clemson’s dominance against Georgia Tech and you see a similar recipe for success.
Whether or not Clemson can take away zone read and play actions off of zone read will go a long way in determining how Clemson defends the Cardinals overall. Remember that Louisville had serious struggles with Clemson up front last year.
There still is not much tape of Jackson sitting in the pocket and having to throw Drive, Stick and Snag over and over again into the teeth of a pass rush. The speed at which Louisville is able to turn games into garbage time (a serious concern given Clemson’s slow starts) has rendered it largely irrelevant. The Drive concept, the staple of many of Petrino’s better Arkansas teams, has taken a drastic step back in importance. If, and when, Louisville is forced into the drop back passing game expect Petrino to call Mills early and often. Mills, best known as a Spurrier concept, is designed to attack aggressive cover four defenses, particularly their safeties. Clemson is, yet again, an aggressive cover four defense with a pair of error-prone safeties.
The first read is a curl route, followed by a square in, followed by the post. If Clemson is playing its base version of cover four the corner will sometimes be left one on one (with outside leverage) after the safety jumps the in route. To say the least that is a challenging matchup. With a big tight end around to run the square in, a dangerous receiving back behind Jackson, and speedsters on the outside expect the Cardinals to lean on this concept for a big play or two.
Louisville so far has been a two trick pony. That is not disparagement, quite the contrary; when running inside zone and play actions off it are as devastating as they have been for Louisville only a fool would stop running those plays. That said, Clemson undoubtedly has the defensive personnel in place that can take away the first punch of Louisville’s offense. What will be fascinating to watch, and the difference between twenty and forty points for the Cardinals, is how Louisville is able to counter.