Let’s be honest. Next Saturday’s contest between No. 4 Louisville and No. 3 Clemson isn’t about Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson, like many in the media will talk about. Nope, it will be about Bobby Petrino vs. Brent Venables.
Petrino has one of the best offensive minds in college football, while Venables is one of the best defensive coordinators in the game.
The last two years, these two have butted heads to the very end.
In 2014, Venables stayed up late each night studying Petrino’s tapes from Western Kentucky. That’s when he noticed a play Petrino likes to run when he needs a big play, especially in goal line or short yardage situations. As it turned out, the play he picked up on was the final one Louisville ran that afternoon.
The play is a run-option pass to the right, except Petrino changes it up a little from the normal run-sprint-action that is normally called. The key player in the formation was wide receiver Eli Rogers who lined up to the right of then quarterback Will Gardner in the slot. After the ball was snapped, Rogers ran a dig and then broke out to the right.
“We watched it on Thursday and we ran it in Thursday’s practice,” Venables said afterwards. “They actually covered it on the redo. We re-did it. Then we watched it again after practice.”
And practice makes perfect. At least in this case it did.
“We told everybody. ‘They are going to run that play when they have to make a play Saturday night. Mark it down,’” Venables said. “It is going to be a tough game and when they have to have a play they will call it. We said, ‘They are going to run sprint. They are going to run a sprint to the boundary. Here is our call.’”
Sure enough, on fourth-and-goal inside the Clemson two in the final seconds of the game, Petrino called it. However, he did not did not expect to see safeties Korrin Wiggins and Jayron Kearse bracketing over the top of Rogers.
It caught Rogers and Gardner off guard and when Rogers made his move, he rushed it and fell to the ground. It knocked the timing of the play off and when Rogers tried to pop back up, Gardner tried to fire the ball into the small window, but defensive tackle DeShawn Williams swatted the pass away to seal the Clemson win.
It was a fitting end to a day when the defense did everything it could to make sure the Tigers left Death Valley with a victory. In all, Clemson shut the Cardinals down on fourth-and-one, third-and-one and every short-yardage situation they faced. The defense also forced two turnovers, scored for a fourth straight home game and held the Cardinals to 1 of 17 on third down. Louisville finished the game with 266 total yards and just 54 yards rushing.
It was much of the same in 2015, and again, it came down to the final play. However, this time the Tigers did not need a goal line stand. Instead they needed an interception on the game’s last play to seal their 20-17 victory over at Papa John’s Stadium in Louisville.
Cornerback Mackensie Alexander batted Kyle Bolin’s Hail Mary pass out of the end zone and into safety Jadar Johnson’s arm to complete the win.
For the second year in a row, the Cardinals had very little answers for moving the football on Clemson’s defense. The Tigers held Louisville to 272 total yards and to just 19 rushing yards on 28 carries. The Cardinals averaged just 0.7 yards per carry.
They also recorded five sacks, had two interceptions and held Louisville to 2 of 14 on third down conversions.
However, Petrino and Louisville still had an opportunity to win the game late. On the Cardinals’ last possession, Bolin hit tight end Mickey Crum over the middle for a 23-yard gain, which got them into field goal range, but Kevin Dodd’s sack with 26 seconds left pushed them back and forced the Hail Mary pass at the end, which ended up in Johnson’s arms.
“I told them that you guys don’t have to make every play tonight,” Venables said after the game. “(Louisville) is going to make plays tonight. You just need to make more of them. Fight longer, fight harder, fight tougher and fight smarter for sixty minutes.
“You only have to beat them by one play, and sure enough it came down to the last one.”
Venables will have to do a lot of extra studying this year. Louisville quarterback Lamer Jackson, who did not play very much in last year’s game, has Petrino’s offense clicking. Jackson and the Cardinals have been putting up video-game like numbers.
They have scored at least 59 points in every game, including 63 against Florida State. The Cardinals are averaging 63.5 points per game. Jackson has been unstoppable, totaling 25 touchdowns, the most in college football since the 2000 season.
Jackson leads the nation in total offense and total touchdowns, while Louisville leads the nation in total offense, scoring offense and is in the top five in rushing offense. Does Petrino finally have the answer in Jackson to one up Venables?
As good as Louisville has been on offense, Clemson has been just as impressive on defense. The Tigers rank second in the country in total defense at 218.5 per game. They are allowing just 92.8 yards per game on the ground and 125.8 through the air. They are giving up just 11 points per game.
The equivalent to Jackson on Clemson’s defense is its defensive front, especially the interior of the line. Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Scott Pagano have been unblockable as the Tigers are among the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for loss.
So it’s not just Louisville vs. Clemson next week or Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson. Nope, the real matchup, like it has been the last two years, is Bobby Petrino vs. Brent Venables.