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Game 9 Preview: Clemson Travels to Take on Louisville

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Can the Tigers Play Well on the Road in 2021?

NCAA Football: Clemson at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I know I’m really getting a feel for the team when my predictions start lining up pretty closely. That has happened the last two weeks. Clemson rode Will Shipley to do just enough to get past Florida State and preserve the home winning streak. Now the Tigers have to hit the road again and that has not been a good thing for this year’s Tigers.

Every road performance has been pretty poor, even the one victory up at Syracuse. The two worst defensive performances by far have been road games. Clemson can’t afford for that to continue, but Dabo likes to say “They remember November” and hopefully this team will finally begin to put some complementary football together with all three phases firing at the same time.

Clemson offense vs. Louisville defense: Clemson actually put together some of its best offense of the season last week against FSU. Of course, the cheap touchdowns from explosive passing plays are still absent from this offense, but the run game was productive as the young running back duo of Shipley and Mafah were outstanding. Justyn Ross played primarily at the 9 (or X) and had his most productive day of the season as well.

However, there were still plenty of warts with some penalties, tackles for loss, and sacks that left many drives in Florida State territory fruitless. No sack hurt worse than the strip/sack/fumble that gave the Noles a lead in the fourth quarter. It was the third defensive score given up by the Tigers this season. Thankfully the offense made the most of what was their last opportunity to take the lead back. They were willing to work some fade routes against man coverage on the outside and drew pass interference calls, then Will Shipley had the best run of his career on the go ahead score. (Video via ACC Network)

That was a beast mode run and a real glimpse at what Shipley can bring to the table. It is obvious now that the Tigers have to ride the run game to be successful on offense in 2021. The passing game will need to be there to convert some third downs and to hopefully hit some big plays when teams overplay the run, but the days of seeing 300+ yard passing when the run game struggles are likely gone for this season at least.

Louisville’s defense is not great. I would rank it below just about every unit the Tigers have seen so far except South Carolina State. They aren’t that big but try to make up for that with a lot of movement. This is a risky proposition if the offense hats you up correctly so we should have opportunities to break some big runs. The Cardinals’ pass defense has gotten lit up a few times this season as well, though at this point I’d be happy if the Tigers could break 200 yards passing the ball.

I have to say I have an entirely new appreciation for how easy Trevor Lawrence made throwing the ball look. DJ has looked very labored and mechanical all season long by comparison. He seemed more fluid last season, but that is definitely a work in progress right now. He should have the best chances to hit some big throws over the top in this game than he’s had all season. Hopefully he will connect and get an extra boost of confidence to get him playing at a level closer to what we expected at the start of the season.

Clemson defense vs. Louisville offense: Clemson played its best half of defensive football all year last week in the second half. Florida State had been ripping folks with their running attack, but the Tigers shut it completely down. They got a critical stop to give the offense a chance to retake the lead and generated a score of their own to create the “bad beat” moment of the weekend.

Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas both came up huge after a very disappointing game up at Pittsburgh. This defense can dominate if those two are whipping tackles routinely the way we saw them do it this past week. It also helps when Tyler Davis is inside causing problems like he can do. The Tigers have done a great job against the most mobile quarterbacks they have seen. Ironically Kenny Pickett, though a decent runner, was the one who hurt the Tigers the most. Malik Cunningham can be a handful, but ultimately stopping the Louisville offense comes down to stopping their primary run call: the stretch zone.

If the Cardinals have success with the stretch play, their entire playbook opens up and they can really hurt you with play actions and counters off that action. Ole Miss started the season by completely destroying that stretch play and subsequently rendering the Cardinals’ offense hapless for the entire first half. I feel pretty strongly that if the Tigers can take that play away from Louisville, they will have a very hard time moving the ball with any regularity. I’m sure Cunningham might be good for a broken scramble play in places, but as long as the defense doesn’t give up something cheap like that long TD to FSU on a busted coverage and missed tackle, we should expect that Clemson scoring 24 or better will be all it needs to win.

Clemson’s cornerback play has been exceptional, especially when Goodrich and Booth are out there together. Both guys have evolved into physical tacklers when they have to come down on run support or deal with a screen. I feel confident that they can eliminate the Cardinals’ mediocre WR corps. The stress in the passing game will likely come more from covering the tight ends, running backs, and inside WR options for Louisville. The recipe is similar to last week: stop the run and force Louisville to have to drop back pass to win the game.

Trenton Simpson had a great game last week and we are hopefully seeing him emerge in the same way we saw Dorian O’Daniel and Isaiah Simmons emerge later into their first seasons as starters. This defense just operates at a different level when it has a fully weaponized SAM at its disposal.

Special Teams: Oh boy, B.T. Potter had a game to forget last week. I guess the special teams were due for a bad day after being really very solid all season long. I’m not that worried about him but you never know with kickers as it is such a mental game with that position. Hopefully he will bounce back to the guy we all know he can be and has been. Spiers delivered an absolute beauty of a punt to pin the Seminoles deep late in the game. That is what you like to see from your veteran when a game is in the balance. Unfortunately the offense just isn’t able to end a game at this point so those punts are crucial in these tight games. The Tigers did get a big blocked PAT from Murphy that loomed large in the fourth quarter as FSU had to try to score a TD vs. kick a field goal to tie the game.

Overall: Part of me feels like the team turned a little bit of a corner this past week, but the road woes of this year’s squad gives me pause as well. I think this week’s game all comes down to how the Tigers are able to come out of the gate. Clemson took early leads at NCSU, Syracuse, and Pitt, but in all three cases, the team failed to play complementary football.

The offense couldn’t expand the lead when the defense got stops and when the defense began to leak, the offense couldn’t bail it out. When the offense put together some late scores, the defense struggled or failed to either get the ball back or prevent scores. This defense is built to terrorize if a team is forced to throw to win, but that can only happen if the offense can build a multiple score lead. I’m going to go a little crazy here and actually call for that to happen. I hope I’m not calling myself an idiot this time next week.

Clemson 33-Louisville 13