Going into this game, everyone asks themselves one thing: how exactly did the Cardinals fall this far?
Well, a lot of us have similar answers (loss of Lamar Jackson, lack of recruiting, questionable personnel hires), but it all amounts to the same thing: this Cardinals team is nowhere near the danger it has been the past two seasons. I could go on and on about what has led Louisville to this point, but I’ll save that for other STS writers. For now, I’ll simply handle the preview for this Saturday’s high noon kickoff (believe me, this’ll probably be rather short compared to other previews).
Sitting at 2-6 overall and at the bottom of the ACC standings at 0-6, the Cardinals’ wins have come over Indiana State and Western Kentucky, the latter of which they only defeated by three points. The Cardinals don’t have much in terms of positivity: they’re near the bottom of the college football in rushing, averaging only 116.8 yards per game (119th), and putting up 232 yards through the air (70th).
It’s apparent that they didn’t put much thought into developing a quarterback for life after Jackson, as neither of their options have borne fruit. For the most part, the offense has run through Jawon Pass, who has left much to be desired. While throwing for 1,583 yards, he has only tossed seven touchdowns to eight interceptions with a 55% completion percentage. Freshman quarterback Malik Cunningham has received limited playing time, and while he’s shown flashes with his running ability, he hasn’t been handed the keys to offense. At least, not yet.
Pass hasn’t been given much of a run game either; Louisville has looked to a trio of backs in Trey Smith, Malik Cunningham, and Hassan Hall. Smith is the leading rusher of the group with 246 yards and four touchdowns with a modest average of 5.5 yards per carry. Surprisingly, Cunningham is close behind with 227 yards and two touchdowns with an average of 4.7 yards. Likewise, Hall, a freshman himself, is averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has 197 yards on the season.
The Cardinals’ other skill players have struggled this season as opposed to more recent years. Their leading receiver Jaylen Smith, who was often Jackson’s number one go-to-guy, has had his career worst season, putting up 24 receptions for 373 yards, but only putting up one touchdown. The Cardinals other leading receivers, Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick, each lead the team with two touchdown catches. Given their struggles on offense, receiver production is likely to be hard to come by.
The struggles on defense don’t get better for the Cardinals, with cracks starting to show themselves last season. Surprisingly, the Cardinals are ranked 25th in pass defense yards, allowing 187.4 yards per game through the air. This is despite the loss of cornerback Jaire Alexander, who went on to become a first-round pick for the Green Bay Packers. On the other side, the Cardinals can’t exactly speak highly of their run defense, in which they rank 124th, giving up an average of 250.6 yards per game on the ground. Much of their struggles in run defense could also be attributed to the youth of their front seven, which is primarily composed of freshman and sophomores.
The glaring issues in Louisville’s rush defense were evident last week, in which Wake Forest grinded out 368 yards on the ground. 243 of them came from RB Matt Colburn, who got sweet revenge on Coach Petrino, who pulled his scholarship late in the recruitment process. With the Tigers exploding through the air in recent weeks due in part to NC State and Florida State opting to shut down the run, Louisville presents a good opportunity for Clemson to re-establish its ground game. This game could be especially good for a back like Tavien Feaster, who, while being of the best backs in pass protection, has been having a down season with a career-low 193 rushing yards and two touchdowns, numbers which are below that of not only Travis Etienne, but Adam Choice and freshman Lyn-J Dixon.
The key to games like these against Louisville is staying engaged mentally and coming out of the game healthy. While the game has a very Wake Forest-feel to it, remember that Louisville is a team playing with nothing to lose, and a bad loss to the ACC’s worst team this late in the year could effectively end any chances at the College Football Playoff. There might also be a penchant to look ahead to a critical matchup against Boston College. However, a veteran team like Clemson has repeatedly demonstrated it knows how to handle its business. Additionally, being able to go up early quickly and having the backups finish the game while earning valuable reps is ideal. For this game, it’s essential Clemson continue to play smart and take care of business at home against a deflated Louisville team that might have to make a $14 million decision soon on head coach Bobby Petrino.