Third down will be telltale sign

Sep 17, 2015; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown (97) sacks Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during the second quarter at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

If you really want to know who is going to win Saturday’s ACC Atlantic Division showdown between No. 4 Louisville and No. 3 Clemson in Death Valley, pay close attention to what happens on third down.

Heading into the 8 p.m. primetime game on ABC, Louisville is converting 48.9 percent of its third down conversions, while the Tigers are not far behind at 46.4 percent. On the defensive side, Clemson’s opponents have converted just 17.2 percent of the time, while the Cardinals’ defense is allowing just a 21.8 percent conversion rate.

Converting third downs in this one particular game has been a struggle for both offenses the last two seasons. The Tigers were 2-of-16 on third in 2014, while Louisville converted just one third down in 17 attempts.

Last year, though Clemson fared much better, it still was just 5-of-14, while the Cardinals improved, but just barely as they converted just two of 16 attempts.

“That’s just two great defenses. That’s the way it has been the last couple of years. Just check the stats,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They have been pretty good on defense and so have we. It has been a defensive type of game.

“It has been harder to make hay offensively in this game the last couple of years.”

Last year, the Tigers made a little more hay than they did in 2014. Clemson totaled 401 yards, including 202 on the ground, but Louisville still held the Tigers to a season-low 20 points.

Though Clemson is not producing that much against the Cardinals’ defense, it has produced just a little bit more than Louisville’s offense. The Cardinals have a combined 71 rushing yards against Clemson’s defense the last two years and have totaled just 264 in 2014 and 272 in 2015.

“The last couple of years, both times, it has been a tough performance so credit to both defenses,” Swinney said. “We have done just enough to find a way to win in a tough game, but we will see how it goes on Saturday night.”

The difference for Clemson in last year’s matchup was the fact it had quarterback Deshaun Watson the whole game, and though he did not play as well as he usually does, he made enough big plays to get the Tigers over the top.

Watson is back for Clemson this year, while the Cardinals will have a more experienced Lamar Jackson at quarterback. The sophomore played sparingly in last year’s game. However this year, Jackson, not Watson, comes in as the front runner to win the Heisman Trophy, and he gives the Cardinals a different edge on offense that it has not even come close to having in the previous two meetings.

Louisville is averaging 63.5 points and 672 total yards a game. But, heading into Saturday’s game, the Tigers and Cardinals have two of the top 13 defenses in the country. Both also rank in the top eight on third down defense.

“It’s the same thing (this year). They have a good defense, and we have a good defense. They have a good offense, we have a good offense so something will have to give somewhere along the way,” Swinney said.

More than likely the breaking point will come on third down … at least that’s what the brief history of this rivalry has dictated.

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