The players and coaches delved right into film study and preparation for Louisville, and they practiced on Sunday, which is usually the team’s day off. The coaches have all said that they don’t get much sleep when there is an upcoming Thursday night game. Usually, a team will be scheduled a bye week before they play on Thursday night, but that is not the case this time for either Clemson or Louisville. It is probably a particular burden for the visiting team—not only are they playing on short rest but also have to spend one of the days traveling. It is what it is, though, and the staff and players will be up for the challenge. In case you were wondering, Dabo is 4-1 as a head coach in Thursday night games (3-1 on the road). His only loss came in his first season at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and I’m sure most of you remember that game. Clemson nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback but had the would-be game-winning touchdown reversed on a questionable holding call. Irrespective of that game, Dabo has plenty of experience in these circumstances and knows how to get the team prepared.
On the recruiting front, Clemson OL prospect John Simpson was in Columbia for the South Carolina game last week. He has long been considered a heavy Clemson lean, but the Gamecocks have been pushing hard and have made up some ground in recent weeks. Hopefully the disappointing home loss to Kentucky will make him reevaluate the trajectory of the South Carolina program and how long Spurrier might continue to be there. The Notre Dame game in will bring some big-time prospects to Death Valley in a couple weeks, and we will have photos and info on the recruits in attendance.
The Tigers have looked about as good as anyone could have hoped entering this critical divisional matchup, with dominating performances on both sides of the ball in its first two games. Not many expected Clemson’s defense to pick up right where it left off last season, with a #1 ranking. Granted, Wofford and App State aren’t as talented as Louisville, but they aren’t the worst teams in the world, either. And we’ve seen how some other highly ranked teams like Auburn and Arkansas have struggled against similar competition at home. Both of Clemson’s first two opponents were extremely experienced. Wofford will probably compete for an FCS title, and App State will compete for a conference title. One of the compensations of posting lopsided scores in the first two games is that it allows you to get some live snaps for your younger players, of which Clemson has many. The Tigers played 27 freshmen in the opener and 28 on Saturday. This early experience will hopefully bear fruit, as Clemson goes on the road for the first time on a nationally televised stage. Dabo was pleased to get red shirt freshman Greg Huegel a few FG attempts in a game before going on the road, and he hit 2 of 3, including a 47-yarder at the end of the game. That bodes well for his confidence should Clemson need him on Thursday. For my analysis of Saturday’s win over App State, please click HERE.
Obviously, Clemson is still without Mike Williams, who is recovering from a small fracture in his neck. Starting Center Ryan Norton suffered an MCL sprain in his knee at practice on Monday, so he will also be on the sideline on Thursday. Fortunately, Norton should not need surgery and will hopefully be back in action when Clemson hosts Notre Dame in a couple weeks. Clemson should be fine with Jay Guillermo stepping into the starting center spot. He had a great camp and has looked good in the first couple of games, receiving significant playing time. Behind him will be Justin Falcinelli, a red shirt freshman. He is a competent backup, and the coaches have had good things to say about him, but he has seemed to have a bit of an issue with bad snaps. Incidentally, Tony Elliott said that Guillermo was pushing Norton for the starting spot before Norton was injured, so that should tell you Guillermo is more than capable for the job.
Obviously, Louisville comes into the game with an 0-2 record, which is very rare for a Bobby Petrino team. However, they mounted a valiant comeback late against Auburn, falling a touchdown short, and arguably should have won the Houston game but made some unforced mistakes that cost them the game. They could very easily be 2-0 right now. And from a mental standpoint, Louisville has already been in two intense games while Clemson has not yet been tested. Louisville has started two different QB’s in the first two games—Reggie Bonnafon and Lamar Jackson—and one source tells me it is likely we could see a third, 6’2 and 208-pound sophomore Kyle Bolin, start the game on Thursday. “I think I know who the quarterback is,” Petrino said. “But we told them they would get their reps in practice, we would grade the reps, and I haven’t had a chance to talk to the quarterbacks yet, so obviously I’m not going to tell anyone else before I talk to them.” He went on to say, “The other day we came out of the Auburn game and we felt like Lamar (Jackson) gave us the best opportunity. But Houston did a nice job on defense on securing the edges and forcing him to throw the ball.”
Clearly, Petrino is hoping that keeping his cards (pardon the pun) close to the vest will create preparation problems for Clemson, but Dabo said they will be well-prepared for whichever QB is under center. Jackson, a true freshman, started the game against Houston last week but was supplanted by Kyle Bolin toward the end of the game. Jackson is a more athletic, dual-threat quarterback while Bolin is more of a passer. Jackson certainly has the ability to create problems for defenses with his feet, extend plays and run for first downs, but he also had some “freshman moments” in that Houston game and was not extremely accurate throwing the football. My hunch is that if Bolin struggles, we could see Jackson come into the game at some point as a change in style in an effort to throw Clemson’s defense off. Only time will tell, but if you’re Brent Venables, you have to like the fact that you’re either going to be facing a first-time starter or a true freshman at QB. Hopefully the defense will be able to get good pressure on him and force some bad decisions the way they did against App State’s Taylor Lamb last week.
Schematically, much obviously depends on who lines up at QB, but Louisville will be multiple in everything they do and will show a variety of spread, read-option and heavy tight end formations. They will go up-tempo, which Clemson is used to seeing on a daily basis. The Cardinals’ key losses from last season were WR DeVante Parker and RB Michael Dyer. Much like Clemson, Louisville uses its tight ends heavily. TE Micky Crum led the team in receptions last week and was the Mackey national tight end of the week. Louisville’s wide receivers are tall and athletic—something of which Clemson hasn’t seen much in the first two games. WR James Quick, who Louisville fans were hoping would have a huge season, suffered a high ankle sprain a week and a half ago, and it is unknown whether he will play at all. One would think that even if he plays, it would be difficult for him to perform well with that type of an injury. The strength of Clemson’s defense is its secondary, so I expect Clemson to have an advantage versus Louisville’s passing game. RB Brandon Radcliff has not been terribly effective in the Cardinals’ first two games—he has rushed for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns. I think Clemson’s defense will be able to stop the run for the most part and force Louisville’s inexperienced quarterbacks to throw the ball against Clemson’s stingy secondary.
Defensively, this will be Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham’s third consecutive season facing Clemson. He was the DC at UGA in 2013 when Clemson scored 38 points and beat the Bulldogs in Death Valley. Last season, Grantham had one of the best units for the better part of the season. However, Louisville lost some talented players on that side of the ball, such as Gerod Holliman, Lorenzo Mauldin and James Sample. All told, they had 6 defensive players drafted from last year’s team, so they are much like Clemson in that regard. However, Louisville still has some great athletes on defense and good sideline-to-sideline speed. Devonte Fields transferred from TCU, where he had a big season at defensive end a couple years ago. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons will finally get to play Clemson on Thursday. He is a transfer from UGA who was suspended when Clemson played UGA in 2013. Harvey-Clemons is a big, physical safety and has had a good start to the season with 14 tackles and 2 interceptions against Auburn in the opener. CB Shaq Wiggins is another UGA transfer who joined Harvey-Clemons to play for Grantham. DT DeAngelo Brown is a big run stuffer, and DE Sheldon Rankins is another huge defensive lineman to look out for. Louisville has a lot of talent at the linebacker position. The aforementioned Devonte Fields from TCU has played DE but will drop into coverage and be used at outside linebacker by Grantham. Inside linebacker Keith Kelsey has both of Louisville’s sacks on the season and 4 tackles-for-loss. James Burgess is another talented linebacker for the Cardinals. Grantham likes to blitz a lot and bring heavy pressure on the QB, but fortunately Deshaun Watson seems to play even better when blitzed. Knock on wood! By the way, Louisville fans probably weren’t expecting to allow 65 points in its first two games, but if you go back to last season, Grantham’s defense allowed 37 points to UGA in the bowl game and 40 points to Kentucky in the previous game. Let’s hope that trend continues!
If you’d like to see Petrino’s press conference from Monday night, please click HERE.
This will be only the second all-time meeting between the two schools….Clemson is 5-9 all-time in ESPN Thursday night games but has won 4 in a row under Dabo. 7 of the 9 losses were to ranked teams. This is the fourth straight year in which Clemson has played a Thursday night game, and it played two in 2013…..Clemson is ranked #9 in the Coaches’ Poll, its first time being ranked in the top 10 since the final poll of 2013. Clemson has been ranked in both polls for 63 of the last 69 weeks….Clemson has won 31 straight games versus unranked teams, dating back to the 2011 season. Only Alabama has as many….Players of the game against App State were Charone Peake on offense, Shaq Lawson on defense and Andy Teasdall on special teams….Shaq Lawson already has 4.5 tackles-for-loss. He is the ACC career leader among active players in that category and 12th in the nation. Lawson was the first Clemson player since Anthony Simmons to record at least 10 TFLs as a freshman and sophomore….Jayron Kearse already has 7 interceptions in his career, which is tied for 16th in the nation among active players….Deshaun Watson celebrated his 20th birthday on Monday….Last week Carlos Watkins recorded a pick-six. Clemson has 11 defensive touchdowns in just over 3 seasons with Brent Venables….Clemson’s defense currently ranks 12th in scoring defense, 4th in passing defense and 18th in total defense…Deshaun Watson’s current QBR is 184.6, which is 9th in the nation. Last season, his QBR of 188.6 led the nation for QBs with at least 125 attempts…This is the 4th consecutive season Clemson has opened its ACC slate on the road and 5th in the last 7 years.
On to the prediction…
Don’t let Louisville’s 0-2 record fool you. This is a dangerous team with plenty of athletes. They might have been able to complete the comeback against Auburn if they had one more quarter, and they essentially gave away the Houston game with some costly self-inflicted mistakes. However, Louisville knows that it has a clean ACC slate, and it’s always dangerous going on the road to face a divisional foe that has its back against the wall and desperately needs a win. Not only that, but it will be the first road experience for a roll call of Clemson freshmen.
In fact, this game was #1 on my preseason list of the 5 most dangerous games this season--primarily because of the timing and location. When I wrote that article, I wasn't quite sure how good Clemson's defense would really be for all of its inexperience. I also had concerns about a true freshman starting at LT, a true freshman at backup RT and a former walk-on, red-shirt freshman kicker all in their first road game in front of a national television audience. All of those concerns have been mitigated for the most part after the first two games. There is also the fact that Louisville's quarterback situation is in disarray, and Louisville doesn't know what its identity on offense is. I did not foresee either of these being the case in week three.
While Louisville has looked far from perfect in its first two games, they are certainly capable of beating us IF we don't bring our best from the beginning. If we play an A game or even an A- game in all three phases, there is no way Louisville comes close in my estimation, but if we turn the ball over and have some special teams gaffs, we could be in for a 4-quarter dog fight just like last year. It’s not Death Valley, but their fervent Thursday-night crowd will give them extra vigor and confidence if some plays go their way. Don’t forget that just last season #1 FSU went into the exact same environment on a Thursday night and trailed for most of the game. We gave up over 200 yards in kick returns to App State on Saturday. Those are just the types of momentum plays that could keep Louisville in the game if we don't put them away early.
All of that being said, I think this Clemson team knows all of this and will be 110% dialed in on Thursday night. The defense has played with an enormous chip on its shoulder so far, and they will be eager to make a statement on the national stage. Deshaun will not be rattled, and I expect freshmen Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen to hold their own. I have a hunch Ray-Ray will have a couple explosive plays on offense and/or the return game, and we will continue to find creative ways to get both Ray-Ray and Artavis the ball in open space. Eric Mac Lain said that Elliott and Scott have only used about 13 plays in the first two games. The offense was extremely vanilla, yet the Tigers were still able to put up a lot of points with the first unit and produce explosive plays. After reviewing the first two games, I think Mac was being modest—it was probably even less than that! The tempo has also been phenomenal—the offense ran 49 plays in the first half against Wofford and 52 against App State. With Louisville being an up-tempo team, that should allow Clemson to match or exceed that break-neck pace. I am expecting a heavy dose of offensive fireworks provoking lots of ooh’s and ahh’s from the Clemson faithful on Thursday night, as this Ferrari of an offense is cut loose on the open highway.
Papa John’s Stadium might have better pizza, but Clemson has better ingredients. This will not be a photo finish in Louisville. Hope I didn’t mix-metaphor you to death. Clemson rolls on! The prowl toward the CFP and a 15th ACC Title in ’15 continues…
CLEMSON 45 Louisville 20