Both Clemson and Louisville do a great job of getting off the field on third downs. Louisville is the best in the nation while the Tigers are just outside the top ten. I think it will be key for Louisville to limit the opportunities Clemson has to extend drives. They don't run the ball particularly well so getting them into third and long and trying to get pressure on Deshaun Watson is key for the defense. Louisville's defense hasn't truly been tested by a good quarterback this season and Watson has been on fire since taking over for Cole Stoudt. Watson is extremely accurate and he seems to have picked up Chad Morris' offense very well.
Louisville's third down offense has really improved the last two weeks with Reggie Bonnafon as the starter. The running game has been better and it has led to much more manageable situations for the offense as a whole. Defenses have had to respect the fact that not only does the offense have the ability to go run or pass on third downs, Reggie also has the ability to beat a blitz with his legs and get the first down. It's a different dynamic that wasn't really there at the beginning of the season. The struggling running game hamstrung the offense at times because of the long yardage it led to on third downs. If Louisville struggles to run against Clemson's top 25 run defense, Vic Beasley and company will be much more likely to be in full pass rush mode on third downs.
WHICH TRUE FROSH QUARTERBACK WILL BE BETTER?
Deshaun Watson and Reggie Bonnafon were both top ten dual threat quarterbacks in the 2014 recruiting class. One was ranked number one and one was ranked number ten. Both replaced guys that were considered to have a solid hold on the starting spot well before the season started. Both have overseen an improvement from their offenses since being named the starter. But, that's where the comparisons end. Watson has set the world on fire the last two weeks with ten total touchdowns and a litany of highlight reel throws and runs. Watson has seemingly given the Clemson team a new start to the season. He hasn't faced a good defense yet, but he has led the offense to 91 points in his two starts.
Bonnafon on the other hand has played about as well as one would expect a true freshman to play. While Watson is playing above that level it really doesn't take away from what Reggie has done the last two weeks. The expectations weren't astronomical for a kid that only played quarterback at the varsity level for one year in high school. However, Reggie has completed 57% of his passes and protected the ball fairly well considering the amount of free rushers the offensive line has let through. He has also been victimized by some pretty bad drops from his veteran group of receivers. All in all, he has done a serviceable job replacing injured starter Will Gardner. The question is, can he finally have a breakout game and lead this team to a major upset.
OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY
This game could very well come down to which team's offensive line plays better. Neither have played well enough to make anyone comfortable and neither is improving at the rate that will put concerns to bed. Louisville has had a major problem handling the pressure defenses they have faced, but they also struggled with a Wake Forest defense that doesn't blitz nearly as much as Virginia or Syracuse. There has been improvement in the run game with Brandon Radcliff now getting the lion's share of carries, but the line deserves a ton of credit for opening holes for him to hit and sustaining blocks enough for him to get to the second level. If the line can even do a halfway decent job of neutralizing Vic Beasley at right end it will go a long way with helping the offense sustain drives.
Clemson has had their own issues protecting their quarterbacks. Even the very mobile Watson. They haven't given up the amount of sacks or negative plays that Louisville has, but they also haven't faced a defense that is playing as well as Louisville's or most of Louisville's opponents. No Clemson back has sniffed 100 yards against a FBS opponent this season and have only had more than 101 rushing yards as a team once in the same games. The lack of a run game has seemed to hurt the Tiger's screen game a bit. Adam Humphries and the running backs have had a hard time finding room on plays that have typically worked well in the past. Their line issues have caused some of the same issues that Louisville's offense has seen. Things just aren't as fluid as they should be.
Louisville has had a hard time protecting the football at the quarterback position. Fumbles have killed drives all season long and they haven't had much success improving on the issue. Both Will Gardner and Reggie Bonnafon have both had issues protecting the ball on pass plays as well as handoffs. Clemson has one of the best pass rushers in the country playing at right end and he already has 7 sacks on the season. That includes a strip sack last week that turned into a very easy touchdown for him. Vic Beasley is the type of layer that can change a game in one play. Louisville's offensive line will have to be at their best but so will whichever quarterback is taking snaps. Clemson has forced a handful of turnovers but nothing to get overly excited about. Louisville can't give them more of an edge than they probably already have.
Gerod Holliman is on pace to to set the national record for interceptions in a single season. Charles Gaines will more than likely be at his best after finally being tested last week and being beaten a couple of times. James Sample has done an excellent job playing center field and staying over top of the offense. All of those things bode well for a defense that is facing an offense that values the football. Clemson has only turned the ball over 4 times this year with a split of 2 interceptions and 2 fumbles lost. The mix of Todd Grantham's system and the talent at his disposal is really something that Chad Morris hasn't had to gameplan against so far this year. The complexities could cause some confusion for Watson, leading to an uncharacteristic turnover or two.