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Key Matchups: Clemson

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The key matchups are spread all over the field just like these two offenses.

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Texas A&M vs Louisville Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

JAMES HEARNS VS. CLEMSON’S RIGHT TACKLES

Sean Pollard started for most of the second half of last season for Clemson last year. He went up against Bud Foster’s defense in the ACC championship and followed that up with games against Ohio State and Alabama. Pollard might not have set the world on fire, but that game experience as a true freshman would make you think he would be reliable lineman this year.

That hasn’t been the case with Tremayne Anchrum earning the starting spot this year to start the season. Unfortunately for the Tigers, neither Anchrum or Pollard played particularly well last week. Jeff Holland is a long and athletic defensive end for Auburn. He honestly looks and plays a lot like James Hearns. He has a great motor and great speed off the edge and he flat out ran right past both right tackles for Clemson.

Hearns hasn’t gotten home all the time with his pass rushes but he has been close multiple times. Sometimes that pressure is all you really need. If you can get the quarterback to move his feet, his mechanics could be off. It doesn’t always work out that way which we saw on Purdue’s first touchdown pass when Elijah Sindilar shuffled to his left and threw a strike but it could’ve easily led to a bad pass. Louisville needs to get a consistent pass rush going and Peter Sirmon seems to prefer a four man rush. Hearns is a major key to this game against an apparent weak spot for the Clemson offense.

LAMAR JACKSON VS. CLEMSON’S PURSUIT

I know at times I sound like a broken record but I always go back to the Houston game two years ago for a lesson on how to contain Lamar Jackson. Houston ran a bunch of fast guys at him and forced his eyes into the pass rush while also gang tackling as much as possible. They had a great pursuit and that’s the only way you can even try to contain him.

Clemson was able to get after Lamar really well in the first half of last year’s game and got to him with more than one guy. We’ve all seen Lamar slip out of a tackle and just take off because there’s no one else there but Clemson avoided that for the most part. Then Louisville’s pace wore them down. Louisville ran nearly 40 more plays than Clemson’s previous two opponents ran. Clemson’s pursuit wasn’t there anymore and Lamar went off in the second half.

Jackson is better this year. He’s shown that he’s more comfortable in the pocket and he’s shown that he can speed through his reads because he’s seeing things better pre-snap. He also rarely looks at the rush anymore. You see that when he scrambles and still finds an open man with ease. Throw in the fact that he’s bigger and stronger and maybe that second defender for Clemson still misses the tackle. Lamar Jackson is going to have to be outstanding but there’s a lot of evidence that he’s improved in the areas that would maybe worry you.

ROBBIE BELL VS. CLEMSON’S TACKLES

My concern entering this year was with Kenny Thomas as he wasn’t able to stay on the field when given the opportunity to play last year. Thomas has held his own so far and played well last week against two good defensive tackles. Robbie Bell didn’t fare as well. Bell had multiple plays where he wasn’t able to get to his spot before the defender on run plays. Bell isn’t the only one at fault as some of these plays require the guard next to him to “chip” the guy that Bell is responsible for and that didn’t always happen.

Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are the best defensive tackle combo in the country. You could honestly make the argument that either of them is individually the best tackle in the country. Lawrence is the guy I’m most concerned with as he ends up being blocked one-on-one because Clemson brings five or six guys. At 6-5 and 340 pounds Lawrence is massive and he’s strong and he can run. With Bell getting blown off the ball a few times this year, I can’t help but worry how he will hold up against such a high level player. Bell could truly change this game if he handles the interior linemen. A clean pocket for Lamar is a big deal but running backs having room to run and a lack of negative plays is huge.

TANNER MUSE VS. DEZ FITZPATRICK

One of the weirdest things going on this season is Lamar Jackson’s inability to complete passes outside of the numbers. Jackson has been lights out throwing the football this year but for whatever reason he hasn’t been able to hit his outside receivers from the pocket. I won’t pretend to know why this is happening, but it’s happening. It hasn’t really mattered much because UofL hasn’t really had an issue completing passes over the middle or getting chunk plays and big plays down the middle of the field.

If Lamar’s (one) struggle continues on Saturday I think that they will stick with what has been working and I think that will lead them to try to get Tanner Muse matched up with Dez Fitzpatrick when possible. Clemson typically runs with at least one safety deep but their safeties switch that responsibility at times and they will run “zero” coverage with some of their blitzes where there is no safety deep. That means Muse as well as Van Smith (Or K’Von Wallace if Smith isn’t fully healthy) will have to match up with Dez Fitzpatrick or Traveon Samuel. That’s an advantage for Louisville. Muse is 225 pounds and is a guy that excels playing downhill against the run and in a deep zone. He’s not going to be too comfortable trying to keep up with a good route runner like Dez.