LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In what is becoming a budding rivalry in the ACC, No. 2 Clemson visits No. 14 Louisville today (8 p.m.) at Papa John’s Stadium in Louisville, Ky.
Each of the series’ first three meetings were decided by six points or less. Clemson has won both meetings in Death Valley by six points, getting a goal line stop in the final seconds in both games. Two years ago, here in Louisville, the Tigers intercepted a Hail Mary pass on the game’s last play to preserve the win.
Tonight’s game is being dubbed the biggest football game ever played in Louisville history. So who will have the edge?
Clemson’s defense vs. Louisville Lamar Jackson: This is one of those matchups everyone in college football wants to watch. Jackson is off to a great start, leading the nation in total offense at 505.0 yards per game after two weeks. What makes Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, so special is his ability to create plays even when he looks like he should be stopped. Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins calls him wiry strong because of the way he can bend his body to elude a would-be-tackler. Jackson put up 457 yards and totaled three touchdowns against the Clemson defense last year. Speaking of the Clemson defense, the Tigers are coming off a game in which they had 11 sacks and held Auburn to 117 total yards a week ago. As good as Jackson has been this season, Clemson’s defense has been as equally as good. In its first two games, the defense gave just 120 yards of total offense to Kent State and then 117 to Auburn. The Tigers are allowing just 118.5 yards per game, which is second in the nation. Clemson is also tied for first in the country in passing defense, allowing just 40 yards per game, second in yards per play allowed (2.06) and fifth in passing efficiency defense (71.46 rating). Advantage: Even
Clemson’s defensive line vs. Louisville’s offensive line: This might be the biggest mismatch of the night. Clemson is loaded with first-round NFL talent on the defensive front. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are all projected as first-round players in the 2018 NFL Draft, while defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence could be the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. In the Tigers win over Auburn, the foursome combined for seven of the team’s 11 sacks, led by Bryant’s record tying four. The four also added four more quarterback pressures to the total. When it comes to run defense, they are not giving up anything there either. Teams are averaging just 1.8 yards on 83 carries. Last year, Louisville’s offensive line was one of the worst in the country. The Cardinals gave up 47 sacks a year ago. This year, they have allowed just two sacks in the first two weeks, but Jackson’s ability to avoid pressure has played a big role in that. Purdue and North Carolina were able to create consistent pressures on Jackson, but they did not finish the plays. Louisville has also struggled to have a more traditional running game without Jackson. The Cardinals will start two freshmen in the game in center Robbie Bell (6-5, 305) and right tackle Mekhi Becton (6-7, 340) who has the pleasure of going up against Bryant. The Cardinals also have two other freshmen and one sophomore on their two deep. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s offensive line vs. Louisville’s defensive front: In all honesty, this might the matchup that will decide tonight’s contest. To win this game and put pressure on Louisville’s defense, Clemson has to establish some kind of running game. Last week, the Tigers struggled to run the football effectively against Auburn. Someone other than Bryant needs to be involved in the running game. Clemson’s three running backs struggled to get anything. The Tigers ran for 96 yards and 59 of those came from Bryant, who still led the team in rushing after being sacked three times. Clemson’s O-Line did not play well against Auburn as a whole and most of that is due to the deficiency at right tackle. Tremayne Anchrum and Sean Pollard did not play well at the position. Louisville’s defensive front has been the bright spot so far for the 2017 defense. The Cardinals have six sacks and 13 tackles for loss while holding their opponents to 68 total rushing yards. Opponents are averaging just 1.8 yards per carry. Defensive ends Trevon Young and James Hearns are two of the ACC’s best, while defensive tackle De’Asian Richardson clogs up the middle and is very difficult to move up front. Advantage: Louisville
Kelly Bryant vs. Louisville secondary: The Cardinals have struggled to stop anyone throwing the football this year. More than likely, the absence of Jaire Alexander, who is questionable for tonight’s game, at cornerback has aided in those struggles. Alexander has been out since injuring his knee in the first half of the Purdue game. Since then the Louisville secondary has been scorched, allowing 677 yards through the air. The 338.5 yards per game allowed ranks 126 out of 130 FBS teams. North Carolina and Purdue completed 65 percent of their 95 passes thrown. The secondary does have three interceptions, but it has allowed seven touchdown passes and has an efficiency rating of 143.12, one of the worst in the country. Bryant has shown glimpses of what he can do as a passer, but tonight he will have to make plays with his arm if the Tigers want to remain undefeated. Clemson has the weapons to exploit the Cardinals secondary in Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud. Also, if Clemson can pass block, tight end Milan Richard could have a big game. Louisville has had its issues in the first two games trying to cover the tight end. However, it all boils down to Bryant and his ability to stay patient, let his receivers come open down field and make a good decisions. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson secondary vs. Jackson: Of the Tigers’ 11 sacks last week against Auburn, six of them were due to the coverage Clemson had on the back end. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham did all he could do to keep plays alive, but his receivers just did not come open. Clemson’s secondary will need a herculean effort again tonight. Jackson is a master at extending plays and finding wide receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick down field for big gains. The Cardinals will also try to neutralize Clemson’s pass rush so look for Jackson to throw a lot of quick passes to Smith, Fitzpatrick and speedster Traveon Samuel. In these situations, tackling will be very important because if it does not work, Louisville will be forced to drop Jackson back in the pocket, allowing Clemson’s talented defensive line to come after him. Also, the corners and safeties have to be aware of Jackson at all times. In man coverage, their backs are turned so they can’t see if he has broken containment. Once Jackson gets in the open field, he is almost impossible to bring down. Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino also likes to use the quarterback draw to get Jackson involved in the running game. Advantage: Louisville
Bottom line: This game is going to be tight for a while. Jackson is too good of a player to keep down. He will make his highlight plays because that is what he does. I think Clemson’s defense is too talented not to make its share of plays as well, which means can Clemson’s offense make enough plays to where it does not matter what Jackson does. I think it can. Of the four units, Louisville’s defense is the most suspect. Sure Clemson struggled to move the ball against Auburn last week, but Auburn had a lot to do with that. Louisville’s defense is not like Auburn’s. Its strength is on the offensive side, which fortunately for Clemson it can match. I think Clemson has an advantage on offense and will have its opportunities to make enough big plays itself to help the defense out. Clemson is better than Louisville at every position but quarterback and if Bryant and the offense can take care of the football then the Tigers will pull away late and earn their 11th straight road win.
Prediction: Clemson 37, Louisville 20