LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (0-2, 0-0) vs. NO. 9 CLEMSON TIGERS (2-0, 0-0)
Game Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium: Louisville, Ky.
Announcers: Joe Tessitore (play-by-play), Jesse Palmer (analyst), Dave Pollack (analyst) and Kaylee Hartung (sideline)
Favorite: Clemson by 5.5
All-Time Series: Clemson leads 1-0
Last Meeting: Clemson won 23-17 last season in Death Valley
Schedule of Events:
The preseason hype around the ACC opener for both of these teams was extremely high. With Louisville starting the season 0-2, that hype has subsided a bit but a Thursday night, blackout game will always be a big event nationally. The Tigers have started off the season hot with two wins against lesser competition. Louisville poses the first true challenge even though the Cards haven't fared too well in their first two games.
The best quarterback in the ACC is an easy question to answer. It's Deshaun Watson and it's not even close. Watson is a sophomore that missed chunks of his true freshman season due to multiple injuries. He's come back this year and done everything he did well last year with the exception of running the ball. Everyone wondered if Watson would be timid or if he would run a little more cautiously, but I think Dabo Swinney and his new offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott have avoided putting their quarterback in harm's way. Watson hasn't broken out to show off his running skills yet, and he also hasn't kept the ball much on zone read runs. I won't pretend to know if the coaches are playing it safe against lesser competition, or if Watson is a little timid but I will say that I think we find out on Thursday.
Watson's strength is his accuracy and that has been on full display so far this year. Clemson not only likes to throw quick screens like most spread teams, but they will also throw plenty of deep go routes down the sideline as well as deep in routes which seem to be Watson's favorite. Louisville's safeties have struggled to cover slot receivers this year, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Watson look for that matchup often.
If there's an area where Clemson has struggled over the last few years it has been in the running game. Until last year the Tigers routinely had a feature back that put up solid but not great numbers. Some of that could be attributed to having a running quarterback, but it is still something that stands out because there haven't been a lot of big plays from the running game lately. Wayne Gallman is the next feature back in line and Dabo has been singing his praises for the last few weeks. Gallman is a power back with some serious burst through the hole. He's a tall runner who Dabo compared to Eddie George (I'm hoping only because he runs tall like George). Gallman can run through some tackles and he's exactly the type of back Louisville has struggled to tackle lately. When Gallman needs a breather, C.J. Davidson is his backup. Davidson is a former track guy that can do a little bit of everything for the Tigers.
The loss of leading receiver Mike Williams was a big blow for Clemson as he was the team's deep threat last season. Williams injured his neck on a touchdown catch in week one and questions were raised about who would replace his production. Cherone Peake who was a big time prospect coming out of high school but hadn't lived up to the hype instantly became a guy that fans looked to to take over as the downfield threat. Peake has played well in that role so far as he had two downfield touchdowns last week and looked good even though he doesn't have Williams' speed. Artavis Scott is a statistical anomaly as almost all of his receiving yardage has come after the catch in his career. Scott is the quick screen guy for this offense and he is unbelievably good at it. Scott does a great job of picking his way through the defense if he doesn't have a land and if he's given a lane you might as well say bye. Louisville had issues with Houston when they sped up their offense and Demarcus Ayers made a few plays on quick screens. That can't happen against Clemson because Scott will run wild.
Another guy that has stepped up for Clemson is true freshman Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud and Deon Cain were two of the top recruits in Clemson's class and with the need for more bodies at the receiver spot, both have seen significant time on the field. McCloud gives the Tigers another option in the slot other than Scott. Where this becomes an issue is when Clemson goes even with a bunch formation like we saw Houston do last week. We all knew Ayers was getting the ball but that might not be the case with Clemson and Scott. McCloud is a speedster who can make guys miss, too and Louisville will have to be aware of both.
The position group on the offensive side of the ball that no one has a solid feeling about is the offensive line. The Tigers returned one whole starter from last year's group and they also start a true freshman at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt was the second ranked tackle in the 2015 class and Dabo has entrusted him with protecting the best player on his team. The other spots are manned by two fifth year seniors who have waited their turn to get a chance and former four-star right guard Tyrone Crowder. The line hasn't played poorly, but they haven't dominated like they should have. They've not opened up holes for the running game that one might expect and they (along with some backups during garbage time) have given up five sacks in two games. Watson is an elusive guy but he's seen multiple guys in his face and some twists and stunts that the offensive line didn't handle well left a free rusher to get onto Watson too quickly for him to react.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Artavis Scott, LT Mitch Hyatt, C Jay Guillermo
The front seven for Clemson was arguably the most talented group in the country last season. Unfortunately, almost all of those guys are gone from the program this year. Gone is Grady Jarrett's unbelievable burst in the middle of the line. Gone is Vic Beasley and his uncanny ability to get around the edge and get to the quarterback. Also, gone is Tony Steward and his playmaking ability behind the line of scrimmage. But maybe most importantly is the loss of Stephone Anthony. Anthony did a little of everything for the defense but as the middle linebacker he made sure everyone was lined up correctly and with four years of experience you know the defense could depend on him to make adjustments.
The defensive line for Clemson was a big question mark coming into the season but Shaq Lawson was a guy that fans were really excited about. He hasn't disappointed so far with 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack so far. Lawson is being used a little differently than Beasley, it seems. I've seen Lawson drop into man coverage as well as a straight drop back zone. Beasley was more of a pass rusher from what I saw last year, but I could've obviously missed some snaps. Lawson has been the playmaker but the steady rotation of defensive tackles has shown that Clemson has plenty of guys that can team up to replace Jarrett and others in the interior of the line. The Tigers appear to have a rotation of four guys that switch out from time to time. All four have played very well against overmatched offensive lines. The spot where Louisville might have some success is off of the right edge. Kevin Dodd and Austin Bryant haven't gotten the penetration that others have and Micky Crum and Aaron Epps have had some success blocking on that side.
The group of linebackers have seen a facelift this year as well, with all three spots being manned by players that weren't full time starters last year. The one player that is back had a career day against Louisville last year. Ben Boulware stared in place of Steward against the Cards and he finished the game with 9 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and a sack. Boulware made a living shooting gaps in the offensive line to make plays or disrupt plays. It's an issue that the offense has battled for some time now. Some of Louisville's running plays take a long time to develop and it leaves the play susceptible to a backside linebacker shooting through and disrupting the play. Virginia, Clemson, and NC State were games last year where this killed the offense. Boulware lines up with senior B.J. Goodson and former safety Travis Blanks. Blanks leaves the field when the team goes nickel but he seems to have taken his transition to the second level pretty well. This group is a great mix of great size with Goodson and great speed with Boulware and Blanks flanking him. Houston's speed was an issue last week. We will have to see what kind of adjustments have been made to counteract it.
The secondary is the only position group that returned multiple players. Mackenzie Alexander is one of the top 5-10 corners in the country and Jayron "I walked downJames Quick" Kearse is a jumbo safety that (obviously) runs really well. Alexander is a guy that is good enough that Petrino and McGee might try to avoid him all together. He can jump routes, he can run with anyone, and he has exceptional ball skills. With Louisville's young group of receivers he could make some plays that could change the game. Kearse plays a role similar to JHC. He lines up as a deep safety in the base defense but moves into the nickel when they switch. Kearse isn't as physical as Clemons but he can make plays in the open field just the same. Cordrea Tankersley and T.J. Green have taken over at the other two spots in the secondary. Green has plenty of size and he plays downhill like James Sample. He's also a burner and returns kicks for the team. Tankersley is still a question mark for me. He hasn't been tested much but he hasn't looked extremely comfortable when he was.
KEY PLAYERS: DE Shaq Lawson, WLB Ben Boulware, CB Mackenzie Alexander, FS Jayron Kearse
Excitement Level: 9.3
It's still a Black Out, and it's a still a Thursday night tilt against a top 10 opponent. Being 0-2 doesn't change any of that, but it does add the intrigue of this being the proverbial "turned it around" moment, a la Rutgers in 2011.
I also have to do a radio show which is going to cut into my tailgate time. This is the worst part of fake professionalism.
Pregame Meal: Beer, probably some food
Again, radio show. Not sure if I'll be eating at the Petrino Family Foundation tailgate or if I'm going to have to scuttle back to my friends' tailgate and quickly stuff my face with something there. It's all up in the air right now. PJCS nachos? I hate not being more planned than this for a big game.
Game Attire: Black 2013 national championship polo, black and white L hat, red Cardinal bird shoes.
An ensemble that is unbeaten (1-0) at Black Outs.
Bold Prediction: Louisville holds Deshaun Watson to fewer than 200 yards of total offense
The Year of the Bold Prediction: 2-0. Let's really take this baby out for a spin and see what she can do.
Predicted Star of the Game: James Burgess
His speed and experience might be the biggest asset in Louisville's attempt to do the same thing (defensively) that it did to the Tigers a year ago.
Cole Hikutini Touchdown Alert Level: Venetian Red (probably not playing again)
Ok, so I stopped going to the same website I've been going to for the last several years to look up random Crayola colors for this section, so pretty much the first two losses are entirely on my blogging shoulders.
Motivational Opposition Tweet:
Clemson fans are super nice, but their attempts to razz on Twitter this week have been among the lamest I've ever seen from an opposition.
Hey Bobby Petrino, do you know Owen? "Owen who?" 0-2 #BeatLouisville— Bill Mooneyhan, (@billmooneyhan) September 17, 2015
@CardChronicle will be grass stained after we finish with them.— ThaCarter1983 (@ThaCarter1983) September 16, 2015
Nice guys shouldn't tweet.
--Louisville is 0-2 for the first time since 1998, and looking to avoid its first 0-3 start since 1984.
--Clemson has won 31 straight games against unranked opponents, the second longest active streak in college football (Alabama - 33).
--Bobby Petrino has never lost four straight games as a head coach.
--Louisville has never lost consecutive games at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium with Bobby Petrino as its head coach.
--Louisville will wear all black Thursday night and fans are encouraged to do the same.
--Louisville legend Muhammad Ali will be in attendance for Thursday night's game.
--U of L is 3-1 all-time in "Black Out" games at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, including a 31-13 win over Miami last season.
--Louisville has won their last 10 games played with less than seven days rest, and are 7-0 under Bobby Petrino in such situations.
--Louisville is 0-6 against the spread in its last six home games, but Clemson is 0-5 against the spread in its last five conference games.
--Clemson has a 5-9 record in ESPN Thursday Night games over the years, but has won four in a row, all under Dabo Swinney.
--Seven of Clemson's nine Thursday night losses have come on the road against top 25 opponents.
--Louisville has won eight consecutive games when kicking off to begin the game, and has lost five on its last seven when receiving the opening kickoff.
--This is Louisville's first three-game losing streak under Bobby Petrino. The Cards have not lost four games in a row since 2008.
--Clemson is 1-4 all-time on short weeks leading up to a Thursday night game, including a 1-1 mark under Dabo Swinney.
--Clemson's defense enters Thursday night's game ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass completion defense (32.6 percent).
--Louisville is 7-1 all-time against ACC opponents at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. The Cards' lone loss came last season against Florida State.
--Clemson is 5-8 all-time in its first game in an ACC facility, but current head coach Dabo Swinney is 1-0, a 49- 14 win at Syracuse in 2013.
--Dating back to 2013, Louisville has forced at least one turnover in 18 consecutive games.
--U of L has intercepted at least one pass in 15 straight games, the longest such streak in program history.
--Cardinal safety Josh Harvey-Clemons currently leads the ACC and ranks No. 6 in the nation in tackles per game at 12.0.
--Clemson's current five-game winning streak is tied for the sixth-longest in the FBS.
--Louisville is 22-2 over the last three seasons when attempting at least 35 rushes in a game. The lone two losses came last year at Clemson, and in the 2015 season-opener against Auburn.
--Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 188 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind Virginia Tech (258) and Georgia Tech (226).
--Dating back to 1980, Louisville is 150-17 when scoring 30 or more points in a game, with the most recent loss coming last weekend against Houston. The Cards are also 5-100 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
--"It's the first conference game, and it's against a great opponent, one that's ranked high and it's at home on a Thursday night. Our guys will be excited and focused and ready to play." --Bobby Petrino
--"Louisville's a good team, they really are. I know everybody looks that they are 0-2 right now, but really I wouldn't look too much into that because they are a good football team that I have no doubt will be in a bowl at the end of the year. They have the same chance that we have to compete and win this division ... regardless of whether they are 2-0 or these first two tough games they had didn't go their way." --Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
--"This is what I came to Clemson for - games like this, a chance to play on national television. I've dreamt of this since middle school. When I was committing here and signing the papers, I knew games like this were going to come up each year." --Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson
--"Everybody's going to be watching us It's us and Louisville. All eyes on us. We've got to state our case on why we feel like we're one of the best, and we're going to be one of the best by the end of the season." Clemson safety Jayron Kearse
--"Thursday night is a big stage. It's going to be a big test for us because Louisville is going to come in hungry. This is going to define our team right here, this game. See what kind of team we are on the road in a hostile environment. It's going to be a great test for us this week." --Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson
--"We don't have any illusions going in that this won't be a 60-minute, all-in slugfest." --Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
--"We'll come out and play hard, regardless who we're playing against. Alabama, Florida State, LSU, it doesn't really matter. We don't have any questions to answer." --Clemson safety Jayron Kearse
--"You don't have to tell them, you just say look at the tape, boys. And you talk about a wounded animal is a dangerous animal and their backs are in the corner. They're playing at home and believe they should be 2-0 and they'll be ready to prove it." --Clemson OC Tony Elliott
--"I don't know too much about the position (Louisville quarterback). If they're playing bad, I like it. Whatever they're doing wrong, keep doing it wrong." --Clemson safety Jayron Kearse
--"Personally I think they should be 2-0, maybe overlooking Houston a little bit focusing on us. But when you're trapped in a corner, people are either going to stand up and fight harder or just lay down. So I think a team that's so well-coached is really going to step it up." Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain
--"They're physical, their front seven is very, very good, their linebackers come downhill and tackle well, their corners like to play press man, so that's a challenge there. But I think we're looking forward to that." --Bobby Petrino
--"Both of us have the same goals, and that's to win this division so we have a chance to compete for this conference. So it's a big game tomorrow night, and I'm looking forward to seeing our team compete and play." --Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
Card Chronicle Prediction: Louisville 30, Clemson 28
This isn't just a homer pick, I legitimately believe Louisville is going to win this game. Never lied to you all in this section before.