Nine weeks into the football season and the Louisville Cardinals have gone full ‘Magic Eye’ poster on us. I have no clue what I’m really looking at. If we stare hard enough maybe we can see something jump out....maybe we need to squint.....is the poster upside down....
This week the Cards get Atlantic foe Clemson who has bested Louisville (checks notes) seventy five games in a row. Can the Cards get over the hump? Do we meet at the bird if they do? All these questions and more can be answered with the assistance of my good friend Ryan from over at ‘Shakin The Southland’ where they cover everything Brad Brownell...and mix in a bit of football on occasion. Let’s get at it.
Ryan, it’s safe to say that things have not gone according to plan this season for Clemson. The casual observer may say it all points back to QB play, but is it really that simple? What have you seen this year that points to the decline from a Championship level team to a second-tier ACC squad?
Ryan: Honestly, QB play is not even at the top of the list. The offensive line struggled last season, and despite hearing about the big strides they were making all off-season, they’ve regressed this year. An off-season injury to the presumptive starting center, Mason Trotter, resulted in the left guard, Matt Bockhorst, shifting to center and a true freshman starting at left guard for first half of the season. Neither excelled! Mason Trotter returned from the injury a few games ago which allowed Matt Bockhorst to move back to his more familiar left guard position, but just as he was getting comfortable and playing well again, he tore his ACL.
There is a real lack of depth on the O-line. It’s a position where even four-star recruits often don’t work out so you need a little extra quantity, but Clemson has been very conservative with their scholarship offers (e.g., they only have 13 commits in the 2022 class with just two O-linemen). Clemson also has yet to take a transfer in the Dabo era, something that could have spared them from some of the struggles on the O-line this year.
Wide receiver is another spot where depth has been tested. Clemson thought they were in great shape. They had Justyn Ross, the star of the 2018 National Championship victory over Alabama, returning from spinal surgery. Two former four-star recruits, Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson, were entering their third season and seemed primed for breakout. Rising sophomore EJ Williams was coming off a strong freshman year and on top of all that, reports from fall camp spoke glowingly about Ajou Ajou – a raw but super athletic Canadian entering his sophomore campaign.
Unfortunately, Ross has been very up-and-down. He sometimes seems to avoid or be overly influenced by contact. The pick-six against Georgia was on a throw where he ran the route too deep. The potential game-tying catch against NC State fell to the ground even though he seemingly could have lunged or dove for it. A key interception at Pittsburgh came on a ball thrown to the wrong shoulder, but one he could have helped bat away. That said, last week against Florida State he looked outstanding so maybe he is back after all. Either way, he hasn’t been the dominant force we expected.
Joe Ngata actually has lived up to expectations, but Frank Ladson has been hurt most of the year and is now out for the season. EJ Williams injured his hand early in the year and has been limited by that and other injuries. Ajou Ajou doesn’t seem to know his blocking assignments yet and perhaps needs more time to figure things out. All that leaves the wide receiving corps awfully bare.
After all of that you can look at the play of DJ Uiagalelei at QB. He hasn’t been spectacular or even above average, but – forgive my hubris – Clemson should be able to win the ACC with just average QB-play given the talent on the roster and how down the ACC is right now.
No matter how you slice it, the offense is struggling. The passing game for the Tigers has taken a significant turn for the worse this year. After finishing first or second in passing yardage the last three years Clemson currently sits at 13th in the ACC, trailing only a Syracuse team that relies heavily on the ground game. That phase of the offense has certainly contributed to them only putting up 21.3pts/g...dead last in the ACC. What’s broken?
There’s a lot of youth and injuries and not a lot of depth. I won’t re-hash everything I delved into in my previous response, but there have been issues with nearly every position group on the offense with the notable exclusion of the running backs where the Tigers have a really promising trio that includes one sophomore and two freshmen.
I think the first step in the offense improving is getting consistent traction on the ground with those great running backs. If the offensive line can provide running room, this offense can be serviceable for the rest of the season.
While the offense is a bit rough to watch, the defense is still making highlights and holding teams under 16pts per game on average. Should Louisville look to attack Clemson through the air, or ground and pound with Mitchell, Hall, and Cunningham?
Clemson’s defense is even better than the numbers indicate! The offense has put them in tough situations where they have to run onto the field without catching their breath or go in and stop a drive starting in their own territory. The offense surrendered a pick-six against Georgia, an intercepted shovel pass for a TD against Pittsburgh, and a strip sack scoop and score against Florida State. When you take those out, they’re surrendering less than 13 points per game.
What’s incredible is they’re doing it despite significant injuries. Defensive tackle Tyler Davis will be back against Louisville, but he has missed most of this season. Bryan Bresee tore his ACL against NC State. Those are two of the biggest stars on the defense! There have also been countless minor injuries that kept players out for a game or two, but they have shown incredible heart to keep battling and not wilt when the offense puts them in seemingly impossible positions. The defense came up with game clinching stops against Georgia Tech, Boston College, Syracuse, and Florida State.
Florida State is a great running team, but Clemson shut them down last week. The Tigers are allowing only 3.07 yards per carry this season. They haven’t played a ton of good QBs. Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh is easily the best and he eclipsed 300 yards through the air while picking up key third downs with his legs. I think Malik Cunningham is going to have to have a similarly virtuoso performance for the Cardinals.
While the Tigers were busy winning trophies and rings, many here in Louisville felt as if the Cards let some golden opportunities slip away to steal a “dub” from Clemson on their rise. While I don’t need to remind our readers here, I may refresh your memory Ryan and remind you the Cards are likely a single play away from winning this game in 2014, 2015, and 2016 before getting face punched 2017-2019. If Lamar and the Cards find a way to win in 2016 do you think the history of the Clemson program is altered at all or do they still stack up a couple nattys?
I think at that point Clemson had some special players on the roster and an outstanding coaching staff. They were destined for a great run. Obviously, it is impossible to say how the season changes if Louisville wins in 2016, but I think the Cardinals probably win the ACC in that scenario. Maybe they still lose back-to-back non-conference games to Houston and Kentucky and Clemson, knowing they need to win every game, doesn’t get upset by Pittsburgh. In that scenario maybe a non-champion Clemson gets in over a two-loss Louisville like Ohio State did when Penn State won the Big Ten a couple years ago. It’s impossible to know, but it seems like a painful thought exercise for you.
My ‘Stats and Information’ department is on a sugar crash from Halloween candy so I didn’t verify this but I assume the 3.5pt spread this year is the closest we’ve seen in this contest in at least four years. The Cards have let some very winnable games slip through their fingers this year but fans have been eyeing this one for the last month once it appeared Clemson wasn’t steamrolling teams every week. Cards get a night game, at home, against a team that appears beatable on a paper. Does Louisville finally get over the hump and get their first win over Clemson or does the streak continue for the Tigers?
This is very tough pick. Clemson and Louisville have very similar resumes. If you look at their common opponents, you see similar results. Louisville beat FSU by eight in Tallahassee. Clemson beat them by 10 at home. They both beat Boston College at home and they both lost to NC State in Raleigh. They also both started the season with a loss to a strong SEC opponent.
Where they’re opposites is in their strengths and weaknesses. Clemson’s defense is outstanding while the offense has a lot of issues. The reverse could be said for Louisville. I reserve the right to change my mind as injury news comes out in the next day or two, but I’m hopeful RB Phil Mafah and O-linemen Mason Trotter and Will Putnam will be healthy enough to play after minor injuries last week. Conversely, Kei’Trel Clark is a big loss for Louisville’s defense. I don’t have enough reason to pick against Clemson so I won’t, but Louisville fans probably shouldn’t pick against their team either. This feels like a total toss-up.
Big thanks to Ryan for his time. If you want more insight from him about Clemson and all things ACC give him a follow here. You can also follow ‘Shakin The Southland’ here to stay informed of all your ‘Curious Dabo and the man in the yellow hat’ news.
Now back to this ‘Magic Eye’ poster...I still can’t quite make out what exactly...oh wait, I see it now...It’s Wake Forest running two plays in three seconds. Should have known.