WHAT HAPPENED TO UOFL'S VAUNTED DEFENSE?
UofL's 2013 Louisville defense had seven future draft picks on it. The 2014 defense had six. However, the feeling coming into this season was that the 2015 defense could be better than both of them. Those six draft picks were being replaced with three big time transfers, a healthy Keith Brown, and promising players Chucky Williams and Pio Vatuvei. So far this season it looks like we were wrong in that prediction. The defense has struggled to do any of the things they did well in Todd Grantham's first year. The once stingy run defense has given up 100 yards to an opposing running back in six of the last seven games. The pass rush that averaged over three sacks a game last year has only seen Keith Kelsey get two sacks off of delayed pressure.
Louisville stepped up their defense in the biggest games last year. They allowed 19.5% of third downs to be converted in their three games against ranked teams last year. That's 8 total conversions in three games. They allowed that alone against Auburn and an inefficient Jeremy Johnson. Louisville's defense also started the season extremely strong only allowing 14 points a game in the first five games of the season. The numbers suggest that the team picked up Grantham's system well and executed it the way it was intended to be. What has changed. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins obviously know this system well. Pio Vatuvei played more than enough snaps last year to know how to play in the system. Throw in a veteran Keith Brown who spoke this fall about how much more simple playing outside has been for him and you're looking at Trumaine Washington, Chucky Williams, and Zeke Cannon as the only guys that are inexperienced on the defense. Though the three of them have given up touchdowns and/or been liabilities in coverage, that's not the issue. The lack of pressure and inability to stop the run has left the secondary in a spot where they have to respect the run and they have to cover for too long. That leaves them susceptible to play action and they're expected to stay with guys while the quarterback scrambles.
I have no clue what has changed. The defense wasn't nearly as good in the second half of last season as it was early on but no one could've predicted the regression across the board that we have seen. The interior of the defense hasn't been able to stop simple dive plays. The safeties can't keep up with slot receivers on what seems to be any routes in the route tree. And with the exception of JHC, Keith Kelsey, Sheldon Rankins, and James Burgess there hasn't been a defensive player that has stepped up to consistently make plays. The bottom line is that the defense needs to get back to where it should be.
CLEMSON'S OFFENSE WILL GET REAL PACEY
For some reason I like "pacey" instead of fast so now you know that about me. Clemson likes to get pacey during different situations in the game. If they get a first down? They're probably going to try to catch the defense off guard with a quick screen. If they get a chunk play? They might get their linemen up the field quickly to start wearing the defense down. Then sometimes they just up the pace of the offense in general. Louisville didn't handle Houston's pace well at all last week. I've heard some say that it seemed as though the defense wasn't prepared for it at all. I wouldn't necessarily go that far, but it was extremely obvious that Louisville didn't have a plan in place to rotate fresh bodies into the game. Louisville started to miss tackles in the fourth quarter and for some reason the fact that the starters played a ton of snaps was never brought up. At some point guys like Sheldon Rankins, JHC, James Burgess, and Keith Kelsey need a series off. Petrino brought up guys not running full speed to the ball after the game. That tends to happen when guys are on the field for 95 plays. Grantham has to find some guys that can spell his starters or Dabo and his pacey offense are going to run all over the defense.
WHO IS THE DEEP THREAT FOR THESE TEAMS?
Mike Williams injured a bone in his neck during the Wofford game two weeks ago and left Clemson without a proven deep threat. Louisville has been looking for a deep threat all season with Jamari Staples out injured. Louisville has a group of freshmen that have been solid early in the season but none of them are fast enough to be a true deep threat that can take the top off of a defense. DeVante Peete had a couple of opportunities against Auburn and came down with one deep ball when his man tripped. Jaylen Smith was the target on both of Lamar Jackson's deep interceptions against Houston but it was obvious that Smith may have the size to be a deep threat but he wasn't really running away from anyone. Clemson has a ton of speed in their secondary so we might have to wait another week to find that true deep threat.
Clemson has run into a similar problem so far since Charone Peake has the size to be a deep threat but not necessarily the separation skills to be a consistent playmaker. Peake got behind the defense twice last week with one big play coming after Deshaun Watson scrambled away from pressure. However, Watson's lone interception came on an in route where Peake was beat to the ball by the cornerback. Peake doesn't have great burst out of his cuts and he doesn't always use his body to his advantage. Clemson is loaded with fast guys at the receiver position but with Peake sliding over to William's spot it remains to be seen how the offense utilizes those guys. All but Germone Hopper are young guys that the coaches might not trust yet. Or maybe they just feel that those guys are better used in spots where they can catch the ball and run after the catch. One thing is obvious. If the Clemson coaches watched a lick of film this week they noticed that UofL's safeties haven't been able to keep up with slot receivers at all. I think we will see Watson targeting some of his slot guys on corners and slants to try to take advantage of the mismatch.
WHAT IS LOUISVILLE'S OFFENSIVE IDENTITY?
The musical chairs with Louisville's quarterbacks have brought upon a glaring issue. There is no identity to the offense going into the third game of the season. Are we a spread option team? Power spread? Power O? Pro-style? West Coast? Your guess could be right depending on what quarterback is playing or what the score is. I honestly don't know if that's the goal or not. With Reggie Bonnafon in the game the offense was a mix of power running, read option runs, and intermediate crossing routes. Lamar Jackson came into the game and more read option was introduced but the passing game seemed to mix in a lot of underneath crossing routes as well as deep post routes. Kyle Bolin's offense was more of a pro-style system with heavy use of the tight end and deep comebacks and out routes. Maybe Will Gardner's offense would be a vertical attack with a power running game? In 2014 the team was forced to play different quarterbacks and the extended time with each seemed to at least help the offense work a little bit better. But, in all reality the last 15 games have left a lot to be desired.
Louisville's offense has been pretty sloppy for 15 games straight. The turnovers have piled up to over two a game and they've been he types of turnovers that boggle the mind. Tipped passes against Virginia last year with no adjustment to the first read of the play. Fumbled handoffs by Reggie Bonnafon that have reared their head again this year. Changing quarterbacks in the Belk Bowl only to see Bonnafon throw an interception that swayed momentum. Then we have Lamar Jackson's reckless deep balls into coverage that have him throwing an interception for every 9 completions he throws.
In 2014 it took half of the season, if not more, to see personnel changes like Aaron Epps taking over for Ryan Mack and Brandon Radcliff becoming the number one running back. Will it take that long to settle on a quarterback this year? Maybe a shakeup along the offensive line could spark the running game that has been stagnant so far? I don't have the answers but right now there are a lot of questions with the offense that have been lingering for more than two games. At some point the coaching staff has to settle on one direction and stick with it.