Oh, Louisville. We like you, but we don’t. Commuter college and Papa John’s jokes aside, you were the dream upgrade over Maryland in the ACC. We hated Maryland for being apathetic in everything except assaulting visiting fans. We hated West Virginia BEFORE that Orange Bowl, so many of us exhaled when the ACC chose not to invite them due to snobbery. And so Clemson was thrilled upon your arrival to have another football-focused school help bring some spotlight (and revenue!) to the little old ACC. You were wide-eyed, gracious, happy to be here, and politely eager to show you belonged; perhaps forge a rivalry or two here and there. Oh, how you succeeded.
But then our football contests were bitterly contested and in some circles, controversial. Fans were/are Very Mad Online, overshadowing the stellar in-person reviews from both sides as game day hosts: Clemson is mad at Louisville’s presumption to steal a Heisman with stats and then claim they’re superior despite losing; Louisville has gone full-on conspiracy theorist, and is mad Clemson is mad for being mad, or something. Probably for losing to Clemson in basketball once too, which should never happen. I don’t know anymore! And that’s how I know this is a rivalry now! Which is what we always wanted in this league formerly known for shootyhoops elitism but recently known only for Clemson vs FSU!
So, Louisville, I like that I don’t like you; keep that conundrum in mind when accusing me of full-blown homerism in my analysis. (Full disclosure: I find Louisville quite likable aside from your unscrupulous employment of Bobby Petrino and your indefensible employment of Rick Pitino; yes I know this will turn the comments section into a nuclear wasteland when Card Chronicle finds this). WELCOME TO ONLINE.
As always, my focus is on the opponent’s defense. The match on the other side of the ball garners all the headlines this week, where Clemson’s elite defense faces the best player in the country in Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, and something has to give. Louisville’s defense vs Clemson’s offense pits newer and lesser-regarded faces against one another relative to a year ago, but one side has a decided advantage in familiarity and personnel over the other.
Louisville’s defense since joining the ACC in 2014 has been for the most part very good, bordering great, thanks largely to Charlie Strong’s recruits, but especially Todd Grantham’s coordinating. Grantham’s diverse 3-4 was a great complement to Bobby Petrino’s continuous wizardry with offense, and it surprised basically no one when Louisville ascended within reach of Clemson and FSU. Now though, Louisville has to overcome its lost talent, and — unlike the Clemson offense it will face — deal with a significant downgrade at coordinator.
Louisville swapped coordinators with Mississippi State and Peter Sirmon now makes the defensive play calls. We will likely see more 4-3 looks than the typical 3-4 or 30 front nickel employed under Grantham. DE James Hearns (6’3” 250) can play standing up or with a hand in the ground and will be a problem if Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum play like they did against Auburn at right tackle. Sam linebacker Khane Pass (6’1” 205) is used as a hybrid nickel — though he’s a clear weakness to attack in man coverage — to split out on slot receivers or stack in the box. In short, they can operate from multiple looks using the same personnel (even if it’s not great personnel) like Clemson is able to with Dorian O’Daniel:
The first thing which jumped out at me when watching Louisville’s defense wasn’t necessarily the secondary busts, or realignment issues off motion, or even the lack of pressure generated from the front; it was how the unit doesn’t seem to do a single thing extremely well. The advanced stats back this up, with defensive ratings ranging from mediocre to surprisingly horrible. It’s a veteran group, but the drop in talent is made evident by how they fail to excel more so than the rate at which they screw up in the back. They do plenty of things fine — they’ve been solid against the interior run thus far — but nothing to give you pause or plan away from.
In diagnosing their maladies, though, I noticed a rare twist: it’s the back end at fault for the unit’s struggles as much, if not more, than the defensive front’s. When hired, Sirmon professed he will play “as aggressively as the secondary allows,” and through two games it seems Sirmon has not had the trust in his secondary to send linebackers to help the front get to the quarterback; leading to pockets like this:
Lacking the ability to generate a consistent pass rush with the front 4, Sirmon eventually has to send pressure even if he doesn’t yet trust his back end. But when he does send pressure, the secondary issues are magnified and easily discernible:
It isn’t merely safety eye-discipline or alignment though; in terms of personnel, the primary culprit I’ve seen in the defensive collapses has been field corner Trumaine Washington. His struggles have drawn the ire of Cardinals fans, and they’ve ranged from being beaten in man coverage (Ray-Ray McCloud, this is a big opportunity for you):
...to blowing something as simple as Tampa 2:
It’s easy to forget Louisville’s defense is a seriously veteran unit, with four seniors on the defensive line and three in the secondary. Even though the defense is comprised almost entirely of 3 star recruits, by the third and certainly fourth years in a program those should be solid players if recruiting ratings are accurate (the caveat here is many are transfers who haven’t been in the program three or four years). It is clear that without its only non-Jackson superstar in cornerback/returner Jaire Alexander, the entire unit struggles even more. Alexander’s absence made things much easier for UNC and would compound the issues Saturday if he does not play. From there it’s a domino effect if Washington is CB1, handicapping the entire defense against the what could be the best and is certainly the deepest receiver unit in America.
Remember how all offseason all we heard about was what Clemson lost? Well, compounding the downgrade at coordinator, Louisville must replace its best playmakers on this side of the ball. Louisville lost its best defensive lineman in nose tackle DeAngelo Brown, top tackler in linebacker Keith Kelsey, best pass rusher in Devonte Fields, and its best and most versatile athlete in safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. This bodes well for a Clemson offense which of course lost some all-time greats on offense, but had enough talented depth behind its departed stars from a year ago to mitigate a huge drop off, not to mention years of staff and scheme continuity. Louisville’s defense has neither luxury.
There are no real answers for Sirmon here except trying to confuse Kelly Bryant with exotic looks; very few of which were shown without Alexander against a UNC offense with less talent and even less returning experience than Clemson. If Alexander plays, Sirmon will gain some comfort on one half of the field and can play more aggressively like he did against Purdue; without Alexander, he must continue to weigh helping the uninspiring pass rush versus protecting a struggling secondary. Either way, I expect the same man cover 1 and cover 3 coverages — with or without pressure — to force Bryant to keep hitting the passes he has so far this season; opponents will always fear his legs more. Bryant should have time to go through his progressions against a 4 man rush, and benefit from less back end coverage when Sirmon does blitz. Given the poise and fade accuracy he showed against a ferocious Auburn defense, this secondary on this stage is the perfect opportunity for his coming out party.
A year ago, Clemson wrote the opening chapters in the book which ultimately showed how to slow (not stop) Lamar Jackson before turnovers and the subsequent play count wore down Clemson’s defense and Petrino masterfully hit the vulnerabilities. Despite five turnovers (two of which were at the UL goal line and another deep inside Clemson’s own territory), Clemson overcame Lamar Jackson. The other side of the narrative is Clemson lost most of the heroes who made it barely overcome Lamar Jackson at home. So how can Clemson possibly beat him on the road?
In addition to the drop off found in Louisville’s defense, Louisville lost a bunch on offense, too. The Cardinals were nothing close to a one man team a year ago; now there’s an argument to be made that they are. Clemson’s front 7 is better than a year ago, Louisville’s offensive line is even less experienced, and the Cards lost most of their top skill players. Bryant is far less likely to put the ball in jeopardy than Deshaun Watson (both by design and by his nature), and if Louisville can’t force the turnovers to keep Clemson’s defense on the field, I don’t see them overcoming a wider talent gap in 2017 than what they faced in 2016, even with Jackson’s clear improvement; Clemson replaced what it lost in 2016 far better than Louisville did.
There’s still Lamar Jackson; he’ll keep Louisville in it til the end. But without the supporting cast he had a year ago, even the most dynamic of players can’t overcome Clemson’s roster and continuity.