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Game 7 Preview: Clemson Tigers Travel to Louisville

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NCAA Football: Louisville at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

As a guy who has been around awhile, hammering Florida State is a gift that will never stop giving. It doesn’t take me long to think back to 1993 or 96 or 98 or 2000 or 2013 when hints of sympathy creep into my mind. Feel the pain FSU, feel the pain! We also saw scorched Earth Dabo emerge, ready for the fight, and the results were predictable.

Now the page turns to Louisville. I must say that I feel happy for the players in their program who had to endure one of the worst human beings in the history of coaching, Bobby Petrino. For all of Petrino’s X and O talents, which were significant, his total lack of character finally caught up to him completely as the 2018 Cardinals imploded into perhaps the worst team in the power 5 last year. Personally, Louisville has been my favorite of the later additions to the ACC because they have some football pedigree and some fans who care about it. I wouldn’t mind seeing them reach their potential and be a 10 win type program and offer some of the hype to our matchups the way the 2016 game did. Folks should remember how electric that atmosphere was, and it quite frankly has been lacking with conference matchups these last two years as a whole.

Scott Satterfield was a great hire, even though he wasn’t top choice for Louisville when Petrino was fired. He is very much of the Dabo mold, building his program on the right things and caring about his players beyond just their performance on the field. You could tell from the first quarter of the Notre Dame game how much the team had improved from 2018. This is not a program devoid of talent, especially on offense, and we have seen it operate much more to its potential this season. While the Cards shouldn’t be ready to fully challenge Clemson, they have some of the ingredients to make a game of it Saturday for sure. If nothing else, I look forward to this game becoming what the 2016 game showed it can be in future seasons as Satterfield builds it.

Clemson offense vs. Louisville defense: Clemson should enjoy a serious advantage on this side of the ball. The Cardinals are better on defense than last year, but that isn’t saying much considering just how bad the Brian VanGorder-led squad was. Petrino was an offensive coach and any effort he put into recruiting was usually invested on that side of the ball. The strong defensive holdovers from the Charlie Strong era are gone, as well as the handful of transfers that Todd Grantham helped lure to town during his run as DC. It will take a few cycles for the new staff to get the coffers replenished defensively. In the meantime, they just look to play hard, try to be in position, and protect the defense with the offense as much as possible.

Clemson got back to featuring Travis Etienne like I had hoped last week, and he responded with over 100 yards rushing. We saw a lot more variety in the run game calls early in the first half as well. We all know that the Clemson offense is an elite unit that simply needs to execute the fundamentals to look that way. The coaching staff just has to prepare for and react to the extreme measures the opposing defenses usually have to employ to hope to stop it. Teams must not be allowed to think they can get away with 2 high safety looks or “daring” the Tigers to run the ball. This is a team built to run the ball at a very high level, especially behind the left side of the offensive line. Mix in a pulling Cervenka or Bockhorst, and you have some serious power to run behind. Trevor Lawrence continues to show that if you overload or overreact to the play side, he will pull the ball and burn you with his legs as well.

Louisville doesn’t have much hope to stop Clemson if the Tigers don’t hurt themselves with missed assignments or penalties or turnovers. They will pick their poison, likely trying first to play a shell coverage scheme before ramping down against the run if they are getting gashed. Their formula will be similar to the one they had last week against Wake Forest, which is try to rush out to a lead and hold on for dear life.

Clemson defense vs. Louisville offense: This Louisville offense will present a challenge to Clemson. The Cards have many of the things that UNC had. They are probably better on the OL across the board than UNC and better at WR, while not as deep at running back. They will no doubt look to force Clemson into 4-3 fronts and control the clock to protect their defense. Louisville’s top 3 WR’s, Dawkins, Fitzpatrick, and Atwell, are good players and can win one on one. The Tigers probably haven’t seen a group this good since the Texas A&M game. Clemson was able to stay in 5 and 6 DB packages almost all game against the Aggies, and that allowed the defense to control the Aggies’ passing attack until garbage time. The same will be the case Saturday unless Louisville can prove its run game can beat the 5 man box looks. While the ACC as a whole isn’t ready to challenge Clemson, teams like Louisville have strength on one side of the ball to keep the Tigers from going through the motions.

Louisville’s attack features a lot of option principles and makes you account for the quarterback in the run game. This doesn’t change no matter which quarterback takes the snaps. Initial starter Juwan Pass is now out for the year, but Cunningham was the bigger running threat anyway and freshman Evan Conley also showed good running ability against Wake last week. Both quarterbacks averaged over 10 yards a rush against the Deacon defense, and that balance set up explosive plays in the passing game. While neither Cunningham nor Conley offer the size and arm combination that Pass does, both are dangerous if the run game is effective. Louisville doesn’t want to throw the ball more than around 25 times in a game. If that number gets above that, it will likely indicate a big Clemson win. Satterfield might keep running the ball even if they get down big to try to mitigate the damage and protect his quarterbacks.

One matchup to watch is mammoth Louisville LT Mekhi Becton against Clemson’s ends Logan Rudolph and Justin Foster. Both Rudolph and Foster struggled against UNC’s Charlie Heck, and Clemson’s most dynamic end Xavier Thomas plays over the right tackle. This year’s Tiger defense doesn’t rely on the traditional pass rush nearly as much as last year, but this is an area to watch all the same.

Meanwhile, I wish they could put Doc Walker in the booth just one more time for a Clemson game. The hyperbole for Isaiah Simmons would be worth the price of admission, so to speak. Would he be a “werewolf”? Would he be a “cyborg”? Would he be a “werewolf cyborg”? Simmons has been all that and more, roaming the field like an apex predator. He has to be the leader in the clubhouse for ACC defensive player of the year.

Special Teams: If Louisville has any real advantage in this game, this phase might be it. The Cardinals have been explosive in the return game. The Cardinals are top 3 in kick return and punt return in the ACC, and this phase was a major factor in their upset win over Wake Forest last week. Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the Tigers to bust a huge punt return or kick return. It was interesting to see Derion Kendrick take over punt return last week against FSU instead of Amari Rodgers. As usual, we saw a bunch of fair catches though only one punt looked very returnable. The kick return unit doesn’t get a lot of work thanks to the great scoring defense the Tigers have.

The only drama, if you want to call it that, from last week was B.T. Potter being late to the field for a short field goal, which he promptly missed. He picked the absolute wrong day with scorched Earth Dabo in the house, who promptly blew him up on the sideline and subsequently demoted him for short field goals and extra points for the rest of the game and this week. We will see how Potter responds to the challenge, but Clemson absolutely has to have a reliable kicker inside of 40 yards. It didn’t matter that much at the time against FSU, but as I mentioned last week, Potter’s miss in the UNC game loomed very large when the Tar Heels lined up for that 2-point conversion attempt.

Overall: Clemson’s first three ACC games with Louisville were absolute dog fights that came down to the final possession. This game should not, but it will serve as one of those comparative games with another potential playoff team in Notre Dame. More than ever, it seems that the media and poll folks favor offensive explosions over defensive dominance. How else can you explain the love for Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, and Ohio State over Clemson and Wisconsin? While the Tigers have still been very good offensively save the UNC game, they haven’t had some 400 yard plus passing performance with 50 plus points. The media noise, and especially the AP poll, should be ultimately meaningless once the playoff committee begins its rankings, but Clemson’s defense is better than just about every top contender with Ohio State and Wisconsin being the others I would call truly legit defensively. Clemson can go a long way to further proving its mettle defensively by how it handles a pretty darn good Louisville offense. For those of us still concerned about Clemson’s run defense against a strong running game, this game is a great test.

Clemson 52-Louisville 20.