The Atlantic division title came down to this matchup last year and very well could once again. To help us preview this College Gameday showdown, we have paired up with @JustinRenck from the Card Chronicle.
Lamar Jackson ended last season with three straight losses, in part due to a bevy of sacks and turnovers. He has NOT picked up where he left off in 2016. Through two games – both against weak, albeit P5 opponents – he has 5 passing TDs, 3 rushing TDs, and exactly 1,000 total yards. Can you tell us a little about what plagued him down the stretch last season and how that has changed here early in 2017?
The offensive line plagued Lamar in those games. Louisville finished 124th out of 127 teams last year in sacks allowed with 3.38 per game. Houston sacked Lamar 11 times, which sounds unheard of, but I know Clemson just did the same (or similar) to Auburn. But this is Lamar Jackson. We didn't think sacking him 11 times was possible. That game was a debacle from the start. Louisville fumbled the opening kickoff, and it just got worse from there. He had turnovers against Kentucky, including a key fumble late in the game, but still accounted for 452 yards and four touchdowns. He did not account for giving up 41 points. LSU sacked Lamar eight times and just dominated the line all game. He never had time to even think.
It's actually remarkable that he was able to win the Heisman and put up the stats he did with the way the line was. Being responsible for 51 touchdowns is crazy in itself. Knowing how bad the line was and that he still did that makes it even more impressive.
Although it's only been two games this season, the protection has appeared to have gotten better. I am saying this knowing that Clemson's strength is that defensive line. The Cards haven't face a team like that yet, but they didn't give up one sack against Purdue and gave up two against North Carolina. So, only an average of one per game so far. Bobby Petrino brought in Mike Summers to coach the offensive line this season, his fifth time hiring him. He was at Louisville when Petrino was here in his first stint, when Louisville's offensive line was very good and had future NFL players on the roster (some still in the league today). So the fans have hope that it will get better. They will easily have their toughest test of this young season on Saturday night.
News came out this week that RB Jeremy Smith is out for the season. That leaves former QB turned WR turned RB Reggie Bonnafon and JUCO WR/RB Malik Williams as the primary options at RB. You published a great article about Bonnafon (here) which Clemson fans should check out to learn more about him. While he is definitely “Louisville First” it seems this duo is less than ideal. What are your expectations from Louisville’s RB corps overall and specifically against a Clemson’s defense that just shut down Auburn’s Kamryn Pattway?
Whether it's Michael Bush or Bilal Powell or Brandon Radcliff, Louisville fans have become accustomed to having a solid running back we can count on that can get 100 yards in any game. It's still a mystery this season.
Malik Williams just had a huge game at North Carolina with 149 yards on the ground. It seems like he may have established himself as the guy. Reggie Bonnafon has been the ultimate team player in his time at Louisville. From QB to WR to RB, he plays wherever he is needed. He is good at a lot of things, not necessarily great at any of them. He’s just a very good football player that needs to be on the field.
With Lamar Jackson and the stable of wide receivers on this team, the running backs don't have to be outstanding. They just need to be good enough. They need to provide some sort of threat so that when Louisville runs the read-option, Clemson has to respect that and know that it won't be Lamar keeping it 100% of the time. Sometimes, it seems as though he keeps it when he shouldn't, maybe because he is just wanting to make a play, but the backs need to just do enough to be respected. They don't have to be spectacular.
Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham left for Mississippi State this offseason. Louisville countered by hiring the former Mississippi State defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. What type of philosophy differences have you seen early on from this Louisville defense. After allowing fairly large point totals to rebuilding Purdue and North Carolina squads, do you expect this defense to be a step back from 2016’s unit?
It's been a concern so far. Tight ends and plays over the middle have seemed to burn Louisville in the first two games. Pre-season All-American Jaire Alexander has been out for about a game and a half, so that doesn't help things. But it's not really his position that has been getting beat. But still, you would rather have him out there being the captain of your defense. Giving up points to Purdue did not shock Louisville fans because we are all too familiar with Jeff Brohm. He is from Louisville, played here, and coached here under Bobby Petrino. The man knows offense. Even with less talent, we figured he would have his team ready to score some points.
As for comparing Sirmon and Grantham, the players said all off-season how the schemes seemed to be less complicated now, leaving them with more freedom to go make plays and not think so much. Grantham's system and his play calls seemed to confuse the entire defense. Last year, you would see our guys with their hands in the air right before the ball was snapped, as if they weren't on the same page with the call. It's still too early for me to say if they will take a step back. I want to give them time under the new coordinator, and for Jaire Alexander to be back. But knowing how good Clemson's defense is, Louisville's defense will have to improve this week and not just count on Lamar to put up crazy numbers.
The #1 concern Clemson will have going into this game is figuring out how to stop the most dynamic player in the sport. The #1 concern Louisville will have is figuring out how to stop the best defensive line in the sport. With those out of the way, what matchup or positional advantage gives you optimism? Which makes you worry?
As good as Lamar is, he has to have someone to throw the ball to, and Louisville's receivers have been fantastic so far. Jaylen Smith (6'4 junior) seems to be his favorite target. He has 17 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown so far this year. Dez Fitzpatrick (6'3) is also a star in the making. He is a redshirt freshman that has 173 yards and three touchdowns this season. Seth Dawkins is also 6'3 and brings toughness to the position. Just ask the UNC defender that Dawkins stiff armed to the ground last week. I won't admit to knowing everything about the defensive backs that Clemson has, but I just feel like that position for Louisville will be an advantage. The question will be if Lamar has time to get them the ball.
What worries me is what I talked about earlier, the defense. Avoiding giving up the big play and getting the crowd out of the game. If they keep things in front of them, that's one thing. But the big plays have to be limited. Hopefully, the defense feeds off the crowd in this home opener. If not, it will either be a long night, or we are in for another shootout. Can you handle another one possession game? I am not sure I can, but it won't surprise me one bit if we get a fourth in a row in what as turned into a pretty good rivalry. Yes, I know, Louisville has to win for it to be a rivalry.
A big thank you to Justin for helping us preview this ESPN College Gameday matchup. Follow @JustinRenck on Twitter and be sure to check out the Card Chronicle for more on this matchup.