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Scouting the Louisville Defense: How Do I Put This Gently

Louisville v Boston College Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

I’m sorry in advance. There’s no way to go in depth on the Louisville defense under Brian VanGorder without seeming like a horribly arrogant and derisive homer. Or a masochist. Unless I let this devolve into VanGorder memes like the fellas at the Clemson Pawcast want.

I always prefer to outline the overall scheme or tendencies in an opposing defense and highlight what works or doesn’t, and then maybe look at a few specific matchups which might be favorable, but I have nothing this week. This defense is that bad and that disheveled even in basic man coverages, which I’m sure absolutely no one predicted when VanGorder was hired...

The first visible difference between VanGorder’s and the departed Peter Sirmon’s defenses (and especially to Todd Grantham’s) would be VanGorder’s more clear preference for a 40 front. He’s multiple in how he aligns the front, bouncing between 4-3 even, over, and under, and when he does have 3 down linemen, it’s usually because the 4th is standing up off the edge.

VanGorder even employs a true 4-3 Over Sam linebacker, #97 Nick Okeke, but he won’t see the field much against Clemson’s 11 personnel unless Louisville decides to sell out against the run. Instead we’ll find a true 3rd corner across from Hunter Renfrow to go along with Mike linebacker #17 Dorian Etheridge and Will hybrid #9 CJ Avery:

Louisville had no respect for the FSU run game, and chose to better defend the pass with nickel personnel. Facing such a look was unimaginable for the Clemson offense a month ago, but now we’ll see it more often.

Trevor Lawrence has shown defenses in these past two games they can’t defend Clemson with a single high safety and throw bodies in the box like they could in 2017 and earlier this year. The conundrum for defenses: mitigate the newfound aerial threat with two high safeties or a light box, and Travis Etienne will get back on track; keep selling out against the run and Lawrence looks like he’s ready for the draft. NC State and FSU completely sold out against the run and Lawrence was able to burn them; now defenses know they actually have to pick their poison.

VanGorder is an aggressive coach by nature, sending pressure on man blitzes whether he has the personnel or not, and we should expect plenty of big plays through the air and on the ground. I’m certainly interested to see not only how Louisville chooses to defend, but if they stick with man coverage, which works great when you have a clear talent edge. This won’t be the case on Saturday, and Lawrence will find mismatches to exploit instead of the soft zones he’s faced behind loaded boxes:

Where’s the mismatch in man cover 1? A linebacker matched against a wheel route, with a post to pull the safety away.

The most damning thing to be said of Louisville’s defense isn’t that they don’t do anything particularly well, like in 2017, but that they are consistently out of position or making mental errors on the most basic of concepts. This is why many defensive coordinators forego zone for man even in a talent discrepancy; who busts man coverage? Well:

A tunnel screen is a good call against linebacker bullets, but the man cover 1 shell behind it should’ve jumped this screen and been in position for a pick or tackle for loss. Instead, both corners manned the upfield receiver and allowed a lazy touchdown.

Predictably, the problems aren’t simply in the back end, and many of Louisville’s problems begin up front. The defensive line has length inside with 6’6” Michael Boykin and 6’4” GG Robinson at defensive tackle, but neither is above 300 pounds and is frequently stood up against the pass and is pushed around against the run due to poor leverage:

This very well could be the worst pass rushing line play I’ve ever seen. Without even a modest rush, there’s no way Louisville has the horses to last in man coverage. No explosion, heavy feet, lazy hands.

The linebacker play has been equally confounding. Whether in man or underneath zone, they have picked upon in the passing game, and Clemson fans can relate and sympathize. But it’s the run fits and poor gap integrity which are truly backbreaking for this defense:

Missed run fits are usually due to lack of experience, and that is very likely the case here with both Louisville linebackers (Etheridge and Avery) being sophomores in their first season of real action. They aren’t helped by a line which can’t generate havoc or by a secondary in man coverage which is usually late to respond to a run with their backs to the offensive backfield. But vacating their gap and moving where they think the ball might go tells me they aren’t well coached and haven’t been schooled on their assignments or the opponent’s tendencies. We should know early Saturday if Louisville focused in the film room this week.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: this is a lame duck staff, from Bobby Petrino all the way down. It would be easy to say the players know it based on this film, but given the youth and inexperience it would be unfair to say the team has quit on the staff; though it will bear watching. You would think a recent Heisman winner would secure some goodwill for Petrino, but 9 losses with the best player in college football for 2 full years hurts more than helps his case in my opinion. Petrino’s only saving grace may be his buyout, but Louisville is behind only FSU in ACC athletic department revenue, so I’m not sure how much protection it actually affords.

Asking how VanGorder let his defense get so bad starts with Petrino, who simply can’t seem to attract or retain a quality defensive coordinator. VanGorder faced a colossal rebuild anyway, and given the general decline in talent to go along with the inexperience, this defensive output should surprise no one; anyone who thought VanGorder of all people may turn it around deluded themselves.

The deficiencies in Peter Sirmon’s defense before last year’s contest were glaring, but the sample size small enough for me to hedge against calling for a total blowout. There’s no need to hedge this time; there are no “plus” matchups for the Louisville defense and the 2018 Clemson offense has answers to all of 2017’s question marks.

The only particularly compelling facet in this contest will be watching how Louisville chooses to defend Clemson’s offense. Lawrence has shown what happens when teams load up against Etienne, and I’m very curious to see if the opposition at large will begin to change its approach to better defend the pass. Regardless, expect a return to form for the Clemson ground game against a front with no interior push, lost linebackers, and a literally overmanned secondary. The only question is how bad this will get in garbage time.

Clemson 63, Louisville 7