Last week, the Tigers kept their home win streak alive and avoided an embarrassing loss to rebuilding Florida State. Now the challenge grows as they go on the road to face Louisville. The teams share three common ACC opponents with each beating Florida State and Boston College and falling to NC State. Clemson opened as 3.5-point favorites, and as the narrow advantage would suggest, this may be yet another game that comes down to the final few minutes.
To help us preview the upcoming matchup, we connected with CardinaIStrong of the Card Chronicle.
Ryan: Louisville has had an interesting time in the ACC. In their first four years, they averaged 8.5 wins per season. Then in 2018 they won just two games and subsequently dismissed Bobby Petrino and hired Scott Satterfield. Under Satterfield they have went 8-5, 4-7, and currently sit at 4-4. Where is this program right now? What are the short and long term expectations?
CardinaIStrong: I’m not real sure, Ryan, and I think the Louisville fanbase collectively is still trying to figure that out as well. You hate to make such wide swings in either directions on such a small sample size but the final four games of the year I believe will frame the narrative in the offseason. Get on a little run and win three or four and you’re talking about a seven or eight-win season, which for this team and this staffs tenure, is acceptable in my book. If I’m Satt, you Bob Ross the heck out of painting a beautiful path towards nine and 10 win seasons on the horizon and go recruit your tail off to make that happen.
On the flip side, if they drop two (Clemson/UK) or (clutches pearls) three games. This program is in a really bad spot. Not going to the postseason or barely sneaking in at 6-6 is a tough pill to swallow after last season’s fiasco, coupled with job flirtations (South Carolina), a poor recruiting class for ‘22 thus far, a regression statistically in many areas, and losing back to back games to a rival... It’s like the world’s worst seven layer dip of despair.
Ryan: Last week, Clemson faced QB Jordan Travis of Florida State. For all the Seminoles lack in the passing game, they have been great running the ball and Jordan Travis had over 440 rushing yards (excluding sack yards lost) entering the game. While Clemson’s offense struggled, their defense stymied the ‘Noles rushing attack and kept QB Jordan Travis from doing much of anything on the ground. Like Travis, Cardinals QB Malik Cunningham is a major threat on the ground with over 600 rushing yards (excluding sack yards lost). How important is the QB run for Louisville’s offense and do you think Clemson will dramatically slow it down like they did against Florida State?
CardinaIStrong: No disrespect to the young man but (former Louisville Cardinal) Jordan Travis ain’t no Malik Cunningham. I made a note a couple weeks back on another Q&A that Louisville is just now awaking from a Lamar Jackson hangover and realizing that Cunningham is out here making some plays that would have had folks jumping out of their seats ten years ago... but we got spoiled with Mr. Heisman. As far as Malik’s impact on the run game, the staff’s desire may not match reality, but the numbers tell the truth thus far as Malik leads the team in rushing eight games in. They are splitting the carries a bit behind him but even the leading back (J Mitchell) has around the same number of carries with less production overall in terms of yardage and touchdowns. Like it or not, Cunningham legs, maybe more so than Mitchell or Hall, are key to putting some accountability on the second level of the defense. My concern would be Clemson getting pressure with only 3 or 4, and then Malik has no where to go if he escapes the pocket. Last week excluded, Malik has looked better in the passing game this year overall but I think it’s tough to win this one unless Malik has a productive game on the ground.
Ryan: Louisville ranks just 95th in total defense (415.4 yards per game allowed) and is allowing 5.87 yards per play. Unfortunately, they just lost cornerback Kei’Trel Clark for the season with an injury. What’s plaguing this Louisville defense and how big of a loss is the Clark injury? Clemson’s offense has been scuffling (114th in total offense). Who has the advantage when these two struggling units are on the field?
CardinaIStrong: I want to believe so bad this defense is getting better, and I can find glimmers of hope occasionally (even as recent as the first three quarters of last week) but the numbers are spookier than a late night trip to Woodland Cemetery. I wrote something a few weeks back about lack of pressure and how it’s allowed teams to carve them up on 3rd and 4th downs and we’ve seen some improvement in those areas, but overall the defense has declined in my opinion. The loss of Clark is very big. Thankfully two of the final three ACC games for Louisville are against teams that either don’t pass often or are struggling in that area (Clemson included) this year, but he’s a big piece of that defense. I think the quick fix from the staff is to slide in sophomore Trey Franklin but’s a fluid situation as no one else on that roster can replace the experience or talent immediately. I fully expect Clemson to target whoever is in that spot.
Ryan: I went to Louisville in 2015 when Clemson played there for the first time. I was extremely impressed by the passionate yet courteous fans as well as the town. I even went to Churchill Downs for some races before the game. It may be the best road trip in the ACC! Should I expect a saltier welcome this time around now that Clemson has won six in a row in the series? Any advice for Clemson fans visiting Louisville?
CardinaIStrong: Losing to Clemson every year sucks, but I think the sting has worn off a bit of late because the Cards weren’t competing for ACC titles or National Championships. I’d fully expect another courteous fanbase (the ones who show up) and plenty of hospitality as needed in the lots outside, although some of the competitiveness may sneak back in because there is a legit chance at winning this game this year verses seasons past.
You can check out Churchill Downs once again this year as the meet started last week and they haves races from 1:45 all the way to 8:00pm Saturday and then run again on Sunday starting at the same time. Also worth a stop is the recent addition just outside the stadium called ‘The Alley’. A casual spot to grab a drink, throw some bags, and be within a two minute walk to a stadium gate. Another nice stop in town if you’ve never been is the ‘Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory’. You can take a tour of the museum and during the week actually see bats being manufactured. Cool stop for a baseball fan.
Ryan: Clemson opened as a slight favorite, but the offense is still struggling mightily and this one will be played at night in front of a raucous Louisville crowd. What’s your confidence level going into this game? Do you think the Cardinals get their first-ever win against Clemson?
CardinaIStrong: I’m not sure about the “raucous” crowd this week (see answer #1 above) but the ones who are there will be loud for sure as the drinks start early in Louisville for a night game. The roller coaster of 2021 where Louisville had 2-3 wins well in hand only to see them squandered at the end has brought the confidence level down significantly heading into games and then even late in the games with a one or two score lead. I think Clemson is a shell of their former selves on offense, but the defense is still really good so the question will be can Malik and company put up enough crooked numbers to hold on late. While my gut tells me this is a close one through out, my brain says the mental hurdle of beating Clemson still exists and they let a late score be the nail in the coffin for seven in a row. Cards 17, Clemson 28.
Also, if you casually see the Cards finish this year 6-6 or worse...a wellness check on me in mid-December is greatly appreciated.
Big thanks to CardinaIStrong for all his insights. For the other half of this Q&A click here.
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