LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The calendar has turned to November. For Clemson, that means more championship aspirations even if the Tigers don’t control their own destiny this time.
Clemson (5-3, 4-2 ACC) is still technically in the running for at least a share of the Atlantic Division title after notching a win over Florida State last week. With Wake Forest and North Carolina State ahead of them in the standings for the time being, the Tigers will need some help if they’re going to make a return trip to Charlotte next month to play in a seventh straight ACC championship game, but Clemson first has to help itself.
Winning out is a must for the Tigers, who will try to take the first step toward doing that Saturday when they square off against Louisville at Cardinal Stadium. The Cardinals dropped to 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the conference with their loss at N.C. State last week, but outside of a 21-point loss to Ole Miss in its season opener, Louisville has been competitive throughout the season. The Cardinals’ losses to unbeaten Wake Forest and Virginia, a team just a game out of first place in the Coastal Division, came by a combined four points.
Swinney and his team aren’t taking the bait.
“Another team that is way better than their record,” Swinney said. “This is a 4-4 team, but they’re a handful.”
It starts with a balanced offense directed by the latest in a string of dual-threat quarterbacks the Tigers have seen of late. Malik Cunningham is just one of two quarterbacks in Louisville’s history to rush for 2,000 career yards. He’s tied for the ACC lead this season with 13 rushing touchdowns.
“Seems like every single week, I look up and we’re playing a freak show at quarterback,” Swinney said.
But unlike Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader and Florida State’s Jordan Travis, running isn’t the only thing Cunningham can do consistently. He’s completing nearly 64% of his passes for an offense that, on average, is rushing for more than 200 yards and throwing for more than 200, making Louisville one of less than 10 FBS teams with that kind of balance. The Cardinals also lead the ACC with four passes of at least 75 yards.
“Very tough to contain. They do a good job of moving him around,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Does a great job in their zone read game and their boot game, and he can launch it. When we played up there a couple of years ago, he hit a hole shot against cover 2. Shows you his ability to throw the football. And they’ve got a great system around him.”
Slowing down the Cardinals will start with good communication up front, Swinney said, to contain Cunningham and the rest of their running threats, an area in which Clemson has fared well this season. The Tigers are limiting teams to less than 114 rushing yards per game and took Syracuse and FSU out of what they wanted to do offensively, holding Shrader and Travis to a combined 2 net rushing yards, which included sacks.
“We’ve got to win the line of scrimmage. Simple as that,” Swinney said. “Stay on our feet and not let them get this run game going because that’s where they get dangerous is when they’re efficient. And they can really create explosives because of how you have to play to stop the run game. That will be a big, big part of it for us.”
Offensively, Clemson continues to show incremental improvement thanks in large part to a running game that’s seemingly found its stride. The Tigers are averaging nearly 180 rushing yards over the last four games and leaned on the ground game to crack the 20-point mark in regulation for the first time all season in their 30-20 win over FSU.
Louisville will counter with the ACC’s fifth-best run defense, but the Tigers’ recent stretch of running success has come against some of the league’s more formidable defenses. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and FSU are all top 7 rush defenses.
The Tigers will also get their leading rusher, Kobe Pace, back this week after he missed the FSU game because COVID-19 protocols. But whether fellow running back Phil Mafah and offensive linemen Mason Trotter and Will Putnam will be able to go after getting banged up last week remains to be seen. Swinney said throughout the week that each is day to day and could be game-time decisions.
Turnovers have also plagued Clemson’s offense recently. The Tigers have turned it over five times the last two weeks, two of which have led directly to points for the opposition. That’s something the Tigers are going to have to cut out if they plan on being more productive on the road, where they’re just 1-3 so far this season. Clemson has yet to score more than 17 regulation points away from home.
In all likelihood, the Tigers will need at least that many to get out of Cardinal Stadium with a win. At this point of the season, that’s all Clemson cares about, no matter how it looks.
“We have to focus on what we do control, and that’s taking care of the opportunity we do have,” Swinney said. “Find a way to just win and keep moving forward.”