I was too young to remember the 1981 Georgia game, but I imagine it must have felt a lot like last week’s battle with Auburn. It was tough sledding in the trenches for both squads, but the Clemson defense was completely lights out after the initial drive of the game and Kelly Bryant produced just enough offense to win the game. I could not be happier with Bryant’s performance under the circumstances, and he allayed a lot of my fears of his play going into 2017. Now he gets another big test with his first road game start.
He isn’t heading to Winston-Salem or Durham or Boston, but Louisville’s Papa John’s Stadium and a surefire raucous crowd hosting ESPN Gameday. The draw for this one is clearly the electric Lamar Jackson facing the vaunted Clemson Tiger defense, but it is a tremendous opportunity for Bryant to further solidify himself as the leader of this offense and provide Clemson fans hope of another playoff berth. It certainly stands to reason that more offense will be required than the 14 point effort from last week to get a win this time around.
Clemson offense vs. Louisville defense: The hype is on the other side of the ball for this game, but this is where Clemson, at least on paper, enjoys a significant advantage. The Cardinals are mediocre at best on defense, especially when missing its best player Jaire Alexander (listed as questionable for this game). There is no Sheldon Rankins or Devonte Fields on this front four. The Clemson OL should find life much easier after dealing with Auburn’s formidable front seven last week. This doesn’t automatically mean the Tigers will move and score at will, however.
The communication issues last week up front were troubling, especially considering it was a home game where the offense should enjoy free communication. Now the crowd noise becomes a factor. The Tigers simply have to have a better effort out of the right tackle position this week and force the Cardinals to commit extra hats to the box to control the run game.
We have seen that this year’s offense is much more content to peck away on drives with 4-6 yard runs and passes. The extreme explosiveness provided by Deshaun Watson’s pre-snap ability and physical talents (not to mention the abilities of his supporting cast) made quick TD drives the norm in 2015 and 2016. That was both a blessing and a curse last year vs. the Cardinals when the Tigers scored very quickly but also had five turnovers which allowed Louisville 99 plays and over 37 minutes of possession. The Clemson defense, which had dominated the potent Cardinal attack early on, began to wilt under the strain that created. This year’s team is more equipped to hold onto the ball and lean more on the running game.
Bryant was sensational throwing the ball on third downs last week, and the top 3 WR for Clemson produced well, considering how strong the Auburn secondary was. The Cardinals have had to rely on a lot more off coverage than what Auburn can (and did) employ, and I find it unlikely that they would be willing to risk challenging Cain and company with aggressive press-man coverage without heavy safety help behind it. That is only doable if the front six is able to handle Clemson’s run game on its own. Tricky proposition indeed.
More off coverage means the Clemson quick game/screen game and jet sweeps should be there for the taking. The few (thankfully) attempts at this last week were met with disaster (Ray Ray’s fumble) or near disaster thanks to Auburn pressing up hard with the corners and poor blocking by Milan Richard in particular. If the Cardinals try to mimic the Auburn approach, they have to hope their front four can get pressure so that the double move/deep routes don’t have time to develop or get seen. I saw at least three potential huge plays last week go by the wayside because Bryant was either flushed or sacked before he could see the throw or make the throw. If the OL holds up just a half second more, those are probably long TD’s and a very comfortable win. The Cardinals so far have struggled defending the pass and have given up over 300 yards a game and 7 passing touchdowns in two outings.
Louisville has been stout against the run so far in 2017. However, they haven’t exactly seen a run game like Clemson’s out of Purdue or UNC. Neither Purdue or UNC had much of a runner at the QB position, and certainly nothing on the level of Kelly Bryant. Clemson’s primary backs were not much of a factor last week and starter CJ Fuller had a bad fumble which got him benched. It’s hard to say Fuller or Choice scare you much as a defense compared to Bryant, but should Tavien Feaster begin to see more action it could be a different story. Feaster’s attention to detail looked good in blocking situations last week and that has been the missing piece for him. Choice provided some tough running last week and as noted earlier, the staff seems to be good with the 4-5 yard gains with this year’s team (at this stage). Louisville simply has to stop the inside run game of Clemson and take its chances with Bryant and company on the perimeter. If they don’t, Clemson will win this game going away. Meanwhile, Clemson needs to protect the ball and allow the defense to stay relatively rested. A shootout favors the Cardinals this year.
Clemson defense vs. Louisville offense: Just like last year, Louisville comes into this game having put up ridiculous offensive numbers behind Lamar Jackson. Both Purdue and especially UNC looked completely lost in trying to handle Jackson’s running and throwing. Make no mistake, Jackson is a better quarterback this year than last year, mostly due to comfort in the offense. If he gets adequate time to throw, he can make all the throws. If the rush isn’t disciplined, he can scramble you to death. He’s a better version of 2001 Woody Dantzler, who UNC’s then coach John Bunting said he would need “12 players and a crystal ball” to defend. However, that 2001 UNC defense used an overwhelming defensive front led by Julius Peppers to completely stifle and shut down the previously prolific Clemson offense. There still is no real answer for blowing people up at the line of scrimmage, and the Tiger defense can certainly do that as well as any team in the country. In many ways, Clemson is more equipped to handle the Cards this year than last year.
How is this possible? Well, the emergence of Dorian O’Daniel is the biggest reason. His flexibility as a linebacker in both run support and coverage on crossing action far surpasses what Clemson could do in nickle last year with Ben Boulware (as great as Ben was). Kendall Joseph easily slides back over to MIKE, his home in 2016, in the new nickel package. Louisville made almost all of its hay in the passing game last year on crossing routes and throws to the tight end. This year’s defense is faster in the back seven to help combat that. Hopefully Clemson will have both Van Smith and Marcus Edmond available to keep fresh bodies out there.
Clemson’s secondary was absolutely amazing last week, especially in taking away Stidham’s primary read on nearly every single drop back. There were no easy throws to be had all night before somebody had Stidham on the turf or running for his life. While Jackson is better about going through his progressions so far this year, he hasn’t had to test that ability against a front likely to bury him if he holds the ball too long. Jaylen Smith is, in my opinion, by far the most dangerous WR the Cardinals have and is the best deep threat. Jackson will no doubt be looking for him first on a lot of drop backs. Coach V has a long history of eliminating a team’s best WR and will need to keep Smith in check. As he showed last week, Jackson still will force some of the action when he shouldn’t and has a very hard time taking a loss and living to fight another down. He will put the ball in jeopardy more than the usual quarterback Clemson faces due to his aggression and supreme confidence. It is imperative the Tigers take advantage and convert those moments into turnovers on Saturday night.
Special Teams: Clemson had a hiccup here last week with an ugly field goal attempt from Greg Huegel and a near disaster on a rugby punt. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rugby punt take a perfect one-hop bounce to the return man like the one last week. Thankfully Ryan Carter saved the day with a shoe string tackle. Special teams has played a major role in all of the games vs. the Cardinals since they entered the ACC. We had the Adam Humphries punt return in 2014, the kick return TD by Louisville in 2015, and the Artavis Scott kick return last year. The Cardinals have shown some kick coverage issues early this year, so we might see another huge play come from this phase on Saturday night. Let’s hope it is the guys in the orange helmets making the big plays this year.
Overall: There is no denying Lamar Jackson is an incredible football player. I’m sure he will create some moments on Saturday night for his team. I can’t help but think about what folks would be saying if Alabama was the one visiting Louisville this week. I’m sure we’d be hearing about how the Tide would dominate the trenches and terrorize Jackson all night. Well, Clemson’s defense is as good at the Tide’s, maybe better, and the overall line of scrimmage superiority will be evident early on. Now, give them five turnovers like last year and the Tigers will very likely lose, but Clemson is overdue for a big game with the turnover margin in its favor. Louisville fans are pointing to last year’s FSU game coming in week 3 and hoping for a repeat, but this defense is just too good and the Cardinals have too many defensive holes.
Clemson 31-Louisville 21