NO. 3 LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (4-0, 2-0) At NO. 5 CLEMSON TIGERS (4-0, 1-0)
Game Time: 8:22 p.m.
Location: Clemson Memorial Stadium: Clemson, SC
Announcers: Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), Sam Ponder (reporter) and Tom Rinaldi (reporter)
Favorite: Louisville by 1.5
All-Time Series: Clemson leads, 2-0
Last Meeting: Clemson won 20-17 last season at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
Louisville Depth Chart:
Clemson's offense seemed to score at will last season on their way to a national championship appearance. So, it was no surprise that Clemson was near the top of the polls this preseason with, essentially, everyone returning on the offensive side of the ball. Throw in the return of star receiver Mike Williams and it was inevitable that this Clemson spread would dominate an easy front end of their schedule. That just hasn't been the case so far with shaky quarterback play, an ineffective running game, uncharacteristic drops by receivers, and head-scratching offensive line shuffling all leaving the offense disjointed and frustrated. Clemson will have to shake off all of these issues if they hope to have a chance to keep up in a game that will likely be a shootout.
Deshaun Watson is the most heralded quarterback in the country and, in my opinion, he's the best passer by a good margin. Watson is the type of thrower that you beg to have in your backfield but this season you have to add the caveat: "when he's on". Coming into the season there were a few questions about Watson's accuracy but they seemed very silly. He had just finished a season where he completed nearly 70% of his passes and he did it against great competition. He is also a guy that has been lauded as a great passer going all the way back to high school. It seemed weird that all of a sudden people were raising questions. But, this year Watson has been very inconsistent with his accuracy and it's shown on just about every type of throw you could think of. He's always missed high when he's struggled in the past but now he's missing long on corner routes. He's throwing the wrong ball on deep fade routes. He's missing high across the middle. He's even overthrowing his fastest receivers.
Though Watson has struggled, he has struggled by his standards. He's still completing 60% of his passes and he's thrown 9 touchdown passes. He's improved over his last two games and his offense has finally started to get back to doing what works best for them. In my view, Clemson spreads their offense into a 10 yard box. What I mean by that is that they don't just spread the defense with their formation and try to pick their spots. Instead, they spread the defense and then they utilize quick "stand up" routes as a type of run play with their receivers to keep the defense spread out to the sidelines and as deep as the first down markers. Artavis Scott piled up catches on this play all of last year but for some reason Clemson got away from it early this year. It's an easy way to to get a handful of yards and make the next down more manageable.
With the struggles in the passing game and the lack of creative plays, Wayne Gallman has struggled to get much going in the running game. This is most evident on first down with defenses packing the middle of the line and forcing Gallman to break runs outside or try to burst through a logjam. Gallman is a violent running back like Brandon Radcliff. If you get him in a situation where he has to beat two guys, he'll do it more times than not. But, when he has to beat two guys and there are three more waiting for him, he can't get going. Even though Gallman has good speed, he hasn't been able to get outside much and break too many chunk runs. A big part of the struggles Clemson has seen in the running game is due to defensive lines owning the line and allowing second level defenders to play downhill because they're not being blocked. Louisville was killed by Gallman last year so it could be a big factor if he continues to struggle.
In my opinion, Clemson has the best group of receivers in the country. It should also be pointed out that I felt that FSU has the most "consistent" group. Clemson has all the talent in the world outside and it's also a perfect mix of big play guys, speedy/quick guys, and possession guys that can make big plays when needed. Mike Williams is the best of the group and he's routinely mentioned as the best or one of the best receivers in the country. Williams has elite size and ball tracking abilities and his speed is well above average. What impresses me most about him is that he can run the entire route tree in their offense and he has no fear going across the middle even after breaking a bone in his neck last year. Williams is a nightmare matchup problem for Louisville if Clemson gets within the 30 yard line. He's much too fast and polished to be guarded by a safety, but he's also too big for guys like Shaq Wiggins and Jaire Alexander to handle. Louisville will likely have to shade a safety in his direction which changes the complexion of the defense and puts the offense at an advantage. Louisville has done very well this year setting the tone with their defense. They've made offenses adjust to them and they need to keep it that way on Saturday.
Clemson took a big hit when Hunter Renfrow (who went off in the championship game against Bama) was injured but their depth at receiver is the best in the country. Ray-Ray McCloud moved outside into Renfrow's spot and Deon Cain got out of the doghouse and took on more of a role in the offense. McCloud made highlights earlier this year when he dropped the ball before crossing the goal line but the return itself was really impressive before the mistake. He has also become more of a target on offense and he's a legitimate threat to score every time he touches the ball. It would maybe even be fair to say that McCloud is a more explosive version of Artavis Scott. Deon Cain, Trevion Thompson, and Cornell Powell make up the second group of receivers and all have flashed their potential. Cain had five straight games with a touchdown last year and he's been used as a redzone and third down threat this year. Powell had 5 catches last week and Thompson is a nice possession receiver that is waiting to make an impact.
The focal point of Clemson's offensive issues has been the failing play of the offensive line. Clemson returned a freshman All-American left tackle, a 2nd team All-ACC center, and a 3rd team right guard and somehow they're line has played much worse than it did last year. The reason for this is that the coaching staff has decided to rotate their offensive line through the first four games of the season. Why? They have said that it reflects their practice habits as well as they want to build depth. I get wanting to reward players and wanting to get young guys experience, but this team hasn't been playing well when the starters are in there and I think it's because they keep getting pulled in and out of games. Running backs, quarterbacks, and offensive linemen have to get in rhythm and stay in rhythm and that's why it doesn't typically work well when you rotate them. If Clemson continues to rotate linemen this weekend, I don't see how this offense keeps up with Louisville's.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, LT Mitch Hyatt, C Jay Guillermo
Louisville has started this season on pace for record numbers at the school, conference, and national levels and they will look to continue that trend against a defense that had to reload over the off season. Normally that would make you think that Clemson has no chance to stop the UofL offense but for the second straight year, it looks like Brent Venables has been able to put a very formidable group out there full of young talent and guys who have been sitting and waiting their turn. Clemson has been able to all but shut down UofL's offense over the last two years but this Saturday is a completely different situation.
The key to stopping Louisville's offense is getting penetration and setting the edge. Luckily for Clemson the strength of their defense is along the defensive line. Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence start at the two tackle spots and both are excellent against the run and the pass. Watkins is great at causing havoc with power moves and he can also make tackles behind the line of scrimmage by beating his man with speed. Those plays behind the line are big because he actually makes the play as opposed to just disrupting it. Louisville has made a living on zone reads in part because Lamar Jackson has no one near him to rush his decision or even influence his decision at all. Watkins is the type of player that can make him rush. Lawrence was the second ranked player in the country coming out of high school this year and he's quickly moved into the starting lineup. At 6-5/340, he's what every coach wants in an elite nose tackle. Lawrence demands double teams and he knows how to bet them. Lawrence is third on the team in tackles and he's a nose tackle that isn't on the field all the time. I think that shows just how talented he is.
On the outside, Clemson has been able to move their ultra-talented defensive tackle Christian Wilkins outside to defensive end and he's done extremely well with 5 tackles for loss and three passes batted down. Wilkins is massive as a defensive end at 310 pounds but he has had no issue getting outside the tackle and getting pressure off the corner. That will be key for Clemson with Jackson being so deadly as an outside runner and being a huge problem if he breaks contain on a scramble. On the opposite side, Clelin Ferrell has been very solid even though he hasn't shown up much in the stat sheet. Clemson is a pursuit defense and Ferrell is the fastest of the linemen. He's made plenty of plays forcing guys into the pursuit.
Venables has always enjoyed the luxury of having linebackers who can run and who can blitz well. He lost some of that ability to with the loss of B.J. Goodson but Ben Boulware returned as the leader of this defense and he's playing the weakside linebacker spot that has killed Louisville over the last few years. For whatever reason the Cards have had the worst time trying to block backside blockers and they've given up a ton of tackles for loss because of it. Boulware had 3 himself two years ago before he was a full time starter. Boulware is also a great blitzer because he has great short area speed which allows him to stay back and not show his hand. Marshall had some success early with their blitzes because the line didn't pick up the "late" guy. Boulware would be able to make some big plays if the same thing happens this week. He's also a guy that is heady enough to stay home and make some plays on Radcliff on these read option plays.
Dorian O'Daniel has made some big plays for the Clemson defense but we won't likely see too much of him Saturday with the Tigers being in the Nickel a lot. O'Daniel is extremely fast and he arrives to the ball angry. If UofL goes with their two tight end set or possibly their two back sets we could see him out there. I think he makes their defense much better so they might scheme to keep him on the sideline. The new middle linebacker for the Tigers is Kendall Joseph and he's stepped right into Goodson's shoes. Joseph has 6 tackles for loss already this year and he's averaging 6.5 tackles per game. He's actually somewhat faster than Goodson but I don't think he's learned to be as savvy as a blitzer yet.
Clemson had to replace all but one member of their secondary from last season and so far it's been a little shaky in the back end. Cordrea Tankersley is an all-conference level player and he's got the type of confidence that makes you kind of hope Louisville just stays away from him. He's a physical guy that can play press coverage and be left on an island. That gives Venables a lot of options as a play caller but it also throws off the timing for Lamar Jackson. Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmund have been going back and forth as the starters at the other corner spot. Though Carter and Edmund haven't made a lot of plays, Clemson's pass defense is one of the best in the country statistically and these guys are a big part of that.
The safety position is extremely important in Venable's scheme because he likes to blitz and he likes to keep his linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage. This means that his safeties have to be able to cover slot receivers and they have to be able to help set the edge and get downhill on running backs. Van Smith has already been able to show multiple times that he's up to both challenges and he has really been impressive in run support. Smith is a smaller guy and it has hurt him when he's had to get physical with receivers in coverage but it hasn't been an issue at all when it comes to squaring up with a runner and making a strong tackle. With a violent runner like Brandon Radcliff, Smith has a tough test. Jadar Johnson is the deep safety of the group and he's had a really good season so far but he does play pretty amped up and he's been beaten a couple of times on play action. Clemson hasn't given up much in the passing game but they've had some luck with the opposing quarterbacks they've faced. Troy was able to get some things going once they had some success with the pass rush. These guys in the back end are good but they also benefit from not having to cover for very long.
KEY PLAYERS: DE Christian Wilkins, NT Dexter Lawrence, WLB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley, DT Carlos Watkins
Excitement Level: 9.8
Pretty confident this is a new record, and as high as a regular season game can register.
Game Attire: Khaki shorts, white and red Cardinal polo, dark grey U of L hat
I've always felt like you need to wear your school's primary color when you go to road games, but here's the situation: Louisville loses every time I go to a road game and wear a red shirt. That being the case, I'm going with the same outfit I've worn the other two times I've seen a game in person this season. Hasn't led us wrong yet.
Pregame Meal: Beer, chick-fil-a breakfast, no idea for lunch
On the road and wingin' it.
Bold Prediction: Brandon Radcliff accounts for at least as many Cardinal touchdowns as Lamar Jackson
Two hits in the last three weeks. Not a streak, but still ... something.
Cole Hikutini Touchdown Alert Level: Cerulean Blue (oddly pessimistic)
I don't control the alert level. If I did, I would show it last week's highlights.
Predicted Star of the Game: Lamar Jackson
Once again: I will be selecting Lamar Jackson in this place every week going forward until he gives me a reason not to.
Motivational Opposition Tweets:
Clemson has a Twitter ban for its players, so here's this:
Hope Louisville is watching. This is what better talent, home night game looks like when you're overrated! #BeatLouisville— ShaneDIZZLE!!! (@spillertime81) October 1, 2016
--Clemson has won 18 consecutive home games, the second-longest streak in the FBS. Fifteen of those wins have come by double-digits.
--This will be the 15th match-up all-time of two top 10 ACC teams in league history and the second one in three weeks. No. 10 Louisville defeated No. 2 Florida State 63-20 on Sept. 17. The meeting is only the fifth of AP-ranked top 5 ACC teams and ties the highest combined ranking for any two ACC teams in a game.
--Clemson is 4-7 all-time when participating in a "College GameDay" game of the week.
--Louisville is unbeaten all-time when participating in a "College GameDay" game of the week, winning by an average of 43 points.
--Louisville is 3-29-1 all-time in road games against top 25 opponents.
--If Louisville beats Clemson, it will be the program's 500th all-time victory.
--Louisville is 4-0 for the 12th time in school history, and the fourth time under Bobby Petrino.
--Louisville-Clemson is just the second top five matchup in ACC history not involving Florida State.
--This will be the fourth time that "College GameDay" has been to a game featuring two top five ACC teams. Each of the previous three times, the road team has won by 17 points or more.
--Louisville is 33-2 over the last four seasons when attempting at least 35 rushes in a game. The only two losses came in 2014 at Clemson, and in the 2015 season-opener against Auburn.
--Dabo Swinney was a wide receiver on the Alabama team that was defeated by Louisville, 34-7 in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.
--Clemson ranks fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 11 points per game. The Tigers also rank third in total defense, allowing only 218.5 yards per game.
--Louisville is 33-3 under Bobby Petrino when winning the turnover battle. The Cardinals have lost the turnover battle in three of their four games this season.
--Clemson is 9-5 against top 10 teams under the direction of Dabo Swinney.
--Bobby Petrino is 0-10 all-time in road games against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
--If Louisville defeats Clemson, they'll become the fifth ACC team in the poll era to beat multiple top five teams in the same season. The previous four ACC teams to do that won the national championship.
--Lamar Jackson's 25 total touchdowns gives him more than all 128 FBS teams besides Louisville and Michigan.
--Louisville has won 14 consecutive games when kicking off to begin the game, but has received to start all four games this season.
--Louisville leads the nation in first downs with 125 despite scoring 16 of its 35 touchdowns in 3 plays or less.
--Clemson has lost four of the last five times they have been an underdog at home.
--Saturday's game will be Louisville football's first appearance in a primetime game on network television.
--Clemson has won 10 straight games against ACC opponents.
--Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 203 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
--Louisville is 173-9 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-101 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
--"We're 4-0 and that's where we wanted to be right now, but I believe that our best football is still in front of us and I'm excited about that. I'm also excited about being back home this week. It just doesn't get any better than to be here in Death Valley. To have a night game here is something that we always look forward too. To have a matchup like this — to have GameDay and all that stuff — they're all big. You all hear me say that all the time, but every now and then you get one that has a little more pizazz with it — a little sideshow to go with it. And I know our fans love that, but for us it's business as usual." --Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
--"It's a big game - it's a big week, but a week ago was too. The week before that was. So, there's a process for how you prepare and you try to put together a good plan. But ultimately it comes down to players coming out and executing." --Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables
--"They've got guys that can make plays outside. They've got a hard-nose runner that's down-hill, they've got a quarterback that can pull the pin, and make some plays. I think we understand that it's a challenge for us and we are excited to play on Saturday." --Todd Grantham
--"The first couple games we didn't start out right and we had a lot of critics doubting us. Hopefully we can carry that through the season. I'm going to let the media do the talking. I just sit back, steady defend, and do my job." --Clemson DT Carlos Watkins
--"We don't go into any game thinking we can't win, but (against Clemson in 2014 and '15), we were this close. So we know what we have to do this year to prevail." --Jaylen Smith
--"We embrace the big stage. That's what we want when you come (to college). Growing up, you want to play in the biggest games possible in college football. This is something we've all grown up wanting to do, and it's something we're really enjoying at the moment." --DeAngelo Brown
--"That's No. 8? I don't really feel like we have to step out of our element or jump up another notch to really stop him. I feel like we have the tools and we have the skill set to limit him, and I don't really see any worries with him. Not saying he's not a good player — he's definitely a good player. I haven't really seen a quarterback as versatile as him, but I feel like we have a pretty good defense. So just my confidence in the defense and us as a whole, I don't think it'll be that much of a challenge." --Clemson S Jadar Johnson
--"They're not the Cowboys or something like that. You bring that same mindset and know that you practice against great talent every week." --Clemson LB Kendall Joseph
--"Last year we had everybody behind us going into the Playoff and the National Championship. This year they're kind of doubting us and stuff like that. We just have to come together as a team and block out all the noise." --Clemson WR Mike Williams
--"We respect his game. We respect what he brings to the table. We know he's a great athlete. We respect him but we're not afraid of him. We don't fear anybody." --Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware
--"I know DeShaun Watson the best player in the country. For him to go out there against someone who supposedly is the best player in the country as well is just going to get him to a whole other level.'' --Clemson WR Ray-Ray McCloud
--"There're really no negatives (with Louisville); they are playing incredibly well and we're going to have to play our best game. Something's going to have to give one way or another. We're pretty good on defense and they're pretty good on offense — should be a heck of a matchup on Saturday night." --Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
--"I definitely feel like we can compete with anybody in the country. They've got a great team. I feel like we can compete with them and anybody else that lines up against us. It's a great challenge for us. I'm very confident going into this game." --DeAngelo Brown
--"I actually feel like we're ahead of where we were at this time last season." --Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
--"He's (Lamar Jackson) got a special skill-set in both his running and his throwing ability and his ability to improvise and extend plays can create a lot of problems. You can do everything right and still be wrong. You can live with that, if that happens. But you can't stress about those kind of things. You can only prepare for what you know you're going to see, or anticipate seeing and give your guys the best possible plan to win. I'm not sure there's a great plan on how to defend him, but we'll see." --Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables
--"I've been in a predicament before when we thought about something else in the future. We ended up losing and I wasn't having that. I wanted to focus. We wanted to win. We wanted to play Clemson and be undefeated just like them." --Lamar Jackson
--"We have the talent, we have the tools. Now it's time to put all of it together. Play ball." --Jaylen Smith