With all the talk about Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson versus Clemson’s front four on defense, it’s easy to forget there will be another battle going on when the second-ranked Tigers invade Papa John’s Stadium on Saturday night in Louisville, Ky.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant and the offense will be facing a Louisville defense that returned seven starters from a unit that ranked 14th nationally a year ago, including defensive ends, Trevon Young, James Hearns and linebacker Stacy Thomas.
However, the Cardinals have struggled somewhat in its new scheme under new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. They are more of a 4-3 base defense compared to when Todd Grantham ran the show with a 3-4 defense.
“They are a little different, but they have a lot of similarities, too,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They will get into a lot of Okie front. They were more of a 3-4 type of a deal under Grantham, but they have not shown a ton of pressure, but have pressured some, especially with cat blitzes—corner blitzes—but they have a veteran group.”
Through the first two games, Louisville is yielding 372.5 yards per game, which ranks 72nd in the country. They have six sacks and 13 tackles for loss despite their first two opponents—Purdue and North Carolina—throwing the ball a combined 95 times – the 10th most in the country.
The flip side of that is no one can run the football on the Cardinals. Purdue and North Carolina both gave up on the run early in their games. Through the first two weeks, Louisville has allowed just 68 yards, but it has only been run on 44 times – the second fewest in the country.
“I’m sure they will have a few wrinkles for us that maybe we have not seen,” Swinney said. “It is still early in the season, just two games in, so I doubt they have used their whole arsenal just yet. I think three or four games we might have a little bit more of the differences, but right now they have a good veteran group back and a lot of guys that are experienced. We will be ready for whatever they present.”
The Cardinals may have to do it without all-everything cornerback Jaire Alexander, who had two interceptions and caused a fumble in last year’s Clemson game. Head coach Bobby Petrino says the sophomore is day-to-day and his father told The Courier-Journal in Louisville that his son will not play unless he is 100 percent.
Since Alexander went down with a knee injury in the first half against Purdue, Louisville’s secondary has struggled. They are allowing 338.5 yards through the air (123rd nationally) and seven touchdowns. They do have three interceptions, but opposing quarterbacks have completed 65.3 percent of their passes and have an efficiency rating of 143.11, which ranks the Cardinals 104th in the nation.
However, Swinney cautions that Clemson fans should not read too much into those numbers if Alexander is to miss the game.
“In fact, they have two guys at his position … they both have starts under their belts so they have several guys in their secondary that have started for them at some point last year,” Swinney said. “But 10 is a great player. There is no question about it, and he is a great returner, too. But they have plenty of good players. If he is not able to go, they will not change what they do.”