Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
What a game in Atlanta last Thursday night! The last time the Tigers had beaten Tech in Atlanta, a wideout by the name of Tony Elliott caught a touchdown from Charlie Whitehurst in a 39-3 rout of the Jackets back in 2003! That’s how long it’s been. The Tigers have beaten Tennessee, Auburn and LSU in Atlanta in the interim since but have lost to GT there 5 straight times. Tony Elliott also caught a long touchdown pass from Willie Simmons in the 2002 win over Tech in Death Valley. He’s now 2-0 against them as Co-Offensive Coordinator, so maybe he’s our good luck charm. In each of those 5 straight losses, the Tigers have had everything possible go against them—from fluke fumbles and phantom holding calls to Watson tearing his ACL. Finally, the curse was broken, and the Tigers left nothing to chance in Atlanta this time. They suffocated Paul Johnson’s offense from the first snap and put them away by halftime with a 23-0 lead. Thursday night was the first time since 1903 that an undefeated Clemson team left Georgia Tech still undefeated! In the season opener, the Tigers beat Auburn on the Plains for the first time since 1950, so Dabo continues to exorcise demons and set milestones for the Clemson program. The Tigers are now 18-17 versus Tech since they joined the ACC in 1983. The job Brent Venables and his defense did on that Tech offense was simply remarkable. 21 total yards allowed at the half! Tech’s 124 total yards for the game is tied for the fewest in the FBS this season, and the Clemson defense did that on road against a 3-0 team! Combine that with the shutout they pitched against SC State, and this defense is as hot as they need to be with the top-ranked offense in the nation coming to Tiger Town. For a detailed analysis of the Georgia Tech game, read my grades HERE.
The excitement in Clemson has been building all week long and will reach a crescendo at 9:00 Saturday morning when ESPN College GameDay airs from historic Bowman Field for the 5th time. It is the 4th time in the last 3 years that Clemson will host the show, and that is more than any school in that period other than Alabama. It is also the 10th time overall and 7th time in that period that Clemson has been one of the two teams featured on the show. In addition to the huge implications this game will have on the national landscape, it is also an ACC showdown of historic proportions. In the conference’s 64-year history, it is only the 5th meeting between two AP top-5 teams (4 have been #3 versus #5) and just the 15th meeting between two AP top-10 teams. Ironically, the last time two AP top-5 teams played was the 2013 Clemson/FSU game in Death Valley (also GameDay), but on that night Clemson was the AP #3 team and Florida State was #5. Hopefully #5 will prevail again!
Before I get into the epic battle forthcoming at 8:22 EST on Saturday night, I just want to remind you that this will be one of the great Clemson recruiting weekends in recent memory, and Gary has already compiled a list of more than 60 confirmed visitors that you can see HERE. I asked Dabo about the significance of a game like this from a recruiting standpoint, and his eyes lit up. He said the late kickoff is huge because it allows more time for recruits to get to campus and also allows the staff to spend more time with them leading up to the game. Among the star-studded list of visitors will be 5-star 2018 QB Trevor Lawrence, Scout’s #1 player in the nation for that class. The Georgia native has narrowed it down to the Tigers and Bulldogs, so the Orange Carpet treatment he will receive and the electric environment will only help the Tigers’ chances of landing the star. As always, we'll have lots of photos of the recruits in Death Valley along with some reactions next week. Remember to visit the Recruiting Radar Screen forum daily for the latest intel and updates on the Clemson recruiting front!
Finally, we will once again provide a LIVE video stream during the Tiger Walk at approximately 6:00 and pre-game warmups at approximately 6:45, and we will be streaming live from Bowman Field throughout the GameDay telecast to give you a first-hand Clemson GameDay crowd experience you can’t get on television. So whether you are at a home, party, bar or tailgate, be sure to tune in to The Valley forum on CUTigers.com on your computer or mobile device and experience the excitement all day long!
On to the ACC Atlantic showdown of #3’s….
This is just the 3rd meeting between the two schools, and Clemson has won both previous games….Ben Boulware made his first career start in the first meeting between the two teams in 2014, starting for the injured Stephone Anthony….Clemson has the longest active streak in the top 5 of the AP poll at 13 weeks. Alabama is second at 11 weeks. Michigan and Ohio State are at 4 weeks…..Last Saturday was the 50th anniversary of Howard’s Rock being mounted atop The Hill…..Dabo is 9-5 versus top-10 teams as Clemson Head Coach. Only 2 of those wins have come at home…..Dabo Swinney is 8th among active coaches in win percentage at .745. He is ahead of Mark Richt, Brian Kelly, Bobby Petrino, Hugh Freeze, Jim Harbaugh and Kevin Sumlin…..The 124 total yards allowed by Clemson at Georgia Tech was the 6th-best total by any FBS team since 1978….Saturday will be the 400th career game for Clemson Athletic Trainer Danny Poole….Clemson has won 10 straight ACC games and 18 straight regular season games….Clemson is 4-0 for the 4th time in the last 6 years. Dabo has tied Frank Howard for the most 4-0 starts as Clemson Head Coach….Jordan Leggett needs just one more touchdown to set the Clemson record for tight ends…Clemson freshman CB Trayvon Mullen is a first cousin of Louisville QB Lamar Jackson. Their mothers are sisters…..
Since the opener at Auburn, the narrative about this team has been that something is wrong with the offense. However, a closer look reveals that the Tigers have scored the exact same number of points through 4 games (134) that they did last season. However, everyone was expecting that the offense would pick right up where it left off last season, recording 40 points and over 500 yards against one of the best Alabama defenses of all time. With virtually the entire offense returning plus Mike Williams, those expectations were somewhat justified. The numerous drops, mistakes and missed throws by Watson were not expected. That being said, this offense has shown flashes of its former self and has improved over the last couple games—specifically, since the end of the Troy game when it scored two touchdowns and a field goal on the final three possessions. They followed that with 45 first-half points against SC State and 23 first-half points on the road at Georgia Tech. We also saw Tony Elliott open up the play book a little more last Thursday, and you can bet we will see some new wrinkles on Saturday. The play calling was somewhat vanilla early last season, and the offense gradually diversified as the season progressed. I think you will notice a similar evolution in the coming weeks. You have to like the emergence of Ray-Ray as a consistently reliable option for Watson, and he has been a nice complement to Mike Williams in the vertical passing game. One of the big differences this season has been the lack of production form Artavis Scott. In fact, the 2015 reception leader didn’t have a single catch last Thursday. I attribute this primarily to the return of Mike Williams, the emergence of Ray-Ray and the play-calling. The passing game has been much more vertical than it was last season, with far less screens. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the coaches get Scott more involved early on Saturday with a couple of short passes. This will keep the defense guessing because they haven’t seen it on film this season, and it should open things up down the field later in the game. Aside from Ray-Ray, I’m encouraged by the play of Cornell Powell, Trevion Thompson and even Diondre Overton in the past couple games. Overton caught a long touchdown against SC State and was wide open for another one in Atlanta, but Watson overthrew him. Thompson also had a nice TD catch against SC State and nearly had another one after a catch against Tech. Powell has had a few nice catches in the past 3 games. Leggett, who was non-existent in the first 3 games, finally got off the schneid in Atlanta with a big touchdown catch right before the half.
The biggest concern with the offense has to be the slow start for the running game. Some of it is attributable to how defenses have been scheming the Tigers. They have been keying on Watson running the ball and have and seemed intent on stopping the run. That is why Watson had 35 pass attempts in the first half alone last week. Conversely, defenses were doing the opposite early last season. They were playing the pass and keeping everything in front of them. That being said, Watson and Gallman have simply not been as effective in the run game as they were last season. Gallman is averaging 4.1 yards per carry compared to 5.4 ypc last season. Watson is averaging 3.4 ypc versus 5.3 last season. And it’s not as if the Tigers have faced the best run defenses in the nation thus far. Auburn is ranked 78th, Georgia Tech is 37th and Troy is 33rd. SC State is an FCS defense and not a particularly good one. I’m not sure if the problem is entirely the offensive line, but I have noticed that Watson had made poor reads on a few occasions when he should have handed the ball off to Gallman but decided to keep it. The O-Line has done an outstanding job in pass protection, allowing just one sack all season and very few hurries. They just don’t seem to be opening the same running lanes so far that we were accustomed to seeing last season. Let’s hope that changes soon because this offense is at its best when it runs first to set up the pass. It would be nice to see Feaster get a few opportunities after zero carries at Georgia Tech. He actually led the team in rushing against SC State. I’m not sure if the coaches are confident enough in him right now to give him the ball on this stage, but he could provide a spark in the run game. I wouldn’t mind seeing him come in the game in favorable situations.
Defensively, this team is right where you’d hope they’d be entering their toughest challenge, and they have exceeded expectations by a long shot. They have allowed just 7 points and 226 yards in the last 8 quarters, and you have to love that they got a couple of extra days rest following the Georgia Tech game. Ferrell and Wilkins have answered any concerns about the defensive end position and then some. Dexter Lawrence has been as advertised and then some. The secondary has been solid, and there have been very few of the busted coverages and big plays that plagued this defense last season. They have exhibited great discipline, and their confidence seems to be growing by the week. To wit, in case you missed it on our Tuesday interview thread and on ESPN College Football Live, when I asked Jadar Johnson what he would do if Lamar Jackson tries to hurdle him, he laughingly responded, “I’m gonna slam him!” Ben Boulware said that they respect Lamar Johnson and the Louisville offense, but they fear no one. If you’re nervous about how good Louisville’s offense has looked in September, just imagine how nervous you’d be if this defense has struggled like many thought it would after losing so many underclassmen to the NFL! Brent Venables just keeps reloading with the next crop of young talent and doesn’t miss a beat. Of course, practicing every day against this offense doesn’t hurt their development either!
The Tigers are currently #3 in total defense, allowing 218.5 yards per game. They are also #3 in pass defense (125.8 yards/game), #15 in rush defense (92.8 yards/game), #4 in scoring defense (11.0 points/game) and #4 in 3rd down defense (17.2%).
One of the most pleasant surprises this season has been the improvement in kickoff coverage. The Tigers were dreadful last season, ranking 115th out of 127 FBS teams. They are currently #2 after the first third of the regular season, allowing just 13.0 yards per return. Let’s hope that continues on Saturday because Louisville has one of the most dangerous return men in the ACC.
From an injury standpoint, the loss of LB Jalen Williams early in the Georgia Tech game will hurt a little bit. The linebacker corps is deep, and it will be next man up with Tre Lamar and Chad Smith, but Jalen was by far the most versatile backer of the bunch. He is the only one who could play MIKE, WILL or SAM. The good news is that it was only an MCL sprain, so he shouldn’t be out more than a few games. Even more disappointing was Dabo’s announcement Wednesday night that DE Austin Bryant would miss the Louisville game. Dabo initially told us a couple of weeks ago that Bryant was physically ready to play at Georgia Tech but that they would save him for the Louisville game to be safe and ensure that he had some practice time before facing live bullets. When I asked Dabo on Sunday night if Bryant would be full go for practice, his response led me to believe something was afoot, if you will pardon the pun. I asked Dabo about him again on Tuesday, and he sounded less than optimistic. Finally, he dropped the news on Wednesday. Sure, Bryant has not played a snap all season, and the defense has been sensational, but it would have nevertheless been nice to know Bryant would be providing some depth at end and allow Wilkins to move inside in certain situations. At least Bryant is close, though, and if the Tigers can get through one more game without him, they will be in even better shape going forward. Speaking of close, Adrian Baker was wearing a green jersey at practice on Wednesday and is very close to returning to the secondary. Baker would have started at corner opposite Tankersley if not for the injury last spring.
I’m sure this team requires no introduction, as they have been the most talked about team in the nation since their shocking beat down of Florida State a couple of weeks ago. Most of us knew Lamar Jackson and company would be a threat in the Atlantic Division entering the season, but no one foresaw a 43-point win over Florida State or the video game numbers Jackson has been putting up throughout the month of September, propelling him to the front of the Heisman race. Deshaun Watson has 4 games of 200 yards or more passing and 100 yards or more rushing since the start of last season. Only one player has more over that period, and that’s Lamar Jackson with 5. He literally ran circles around the 4-and-5-star players on the Florida State defense. We all recognized the potential in Jackson last season, but he didn’t really come on until the end of the season. He was bottled up in successive games by Wake Forest, Boston College and Florida State, but then he exploded in their last two games against Kentucky and Texas A&M in the bowl. Jackson has accounted for 25 touchdowns this season—13 passing and 12 rushing. That is more than 123 of 128 FBS TEAMS so far (including Clemson), 22 of the current AP top 25 and 6 FBS teams for the entire 2015 season! Jackson has rushed for 526 yards already on 8.6 yards per carry. He is much more dangerous as a runner than a passer, completing just 58.7% of his passes this season, but he has already thrown for 1,330 yards and has just 3 interceptions. Watson, by comparison, has thrown for just 996 yards and 9 touchdowns against 4 interceptions this season. Louisville is just the 4th team since 1920 to score 59 points or more in 4 consecutive games, and it’s the only team other than 2013 Baylor to do so in its first 4 games.
Aside from Jackson, the Cardinals have a solid running back in Brandon Radcliff. He has 427 rushing yards with 3 touchdowns and averages 9.3 yards per carry. Malik Williams averages 10.4 yards per carry. Jackson has some big-time weapons at his disposal in veteran WR’s James Quick (6’1), who leads the wideouts with 3 TD’s, and Jamari Staples (6’4). TE Cole Hikutini already has 3 touchdowns and is a load to tackle at 6’5, 248 pounds. Former QB Reggie Bonnafon has been converted to WR and has a pair of touchdowns this season.
The Cardinals are #1 in total offense (682.0 yards/game), #3 in rushing offense (318.3 yards/game), #10 in passing offense (363.8 yards/game) and #1 in scoring offense (63.5 points/game).
Louisville is no slouch on defense either. This is Todd Grantham’s third season as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator, and it is the fourth straight year he is facing Clemson. Grantham was Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2013 when the Tigers beat the Bulldogs in Death Valley. So Dabo is 3-0 against Grantham, but Grantham’s defense was able to limit the Clemson offense in the last two meetings. The Clemson offense scored just 29 points in the last two meetings and failed to score a touchdown in the 2014 Death Valley meeting after Watson left the game with a broken finger. The Louisville defense is led by preseason All-ACC First-Teamers DeAngelo Brown (DT), Keith Kelsey (LB) and Devonte Fields (LB). The Tigers also had 3 First-Teamers in Watkins, Boulware and Tankersley, so this game features 6 of the 11 players on the preseason First Team All-ACC! LB James Hearns leads the team with 4.5 sacks. On the back end, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins are a couple of Georgia transfers who followed Grantham to Louisville.
The Cardinals have a total of 15 sacks on the season and 33 tackles-for-loss. They have forced 3 interceptions and 4 fumble recoveries in their 4 games. They have allowed just a 22% conversion rate on 3rd down, but they are not particularly good in the red zone, allowing 8 touchdowns and a field goal in opponents’ 10 trips.
Special teams have played a huge part in the only two meetings between these two programs. In 2014, Adam Humphries returned a punt for a touchdown, and it is the last time that has been done by a Tiger. Ray-Ray should have had one against Troy in the home opener but dropped the ball short of the goal line. Last season, Louisville had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second half that completely changed momentum in the game and gave Louisville a chance to win. This meeting features two of the top punt returners in the nation. Ray-Ray is #8, averaging 18.8 yards per return, and Louisville’s Jaire Alexander is #11 at 17.3 yards per return. Louisville is only 3-6 on the season on field goals.
One final note that I found interesting: Louisville has won 3 out of 4 coin tosses and has opened all 4 games with the ball. I posed the question on the message board a couple of days ago whether Dabo should take the ball first or defer should they win the toss. My contention was that he should take the ball first in an attempt to take an early lead and prevent Lamar Jackson from striking first. After seeing that Louisville has opened with the ball in every game, I feel even more strongly that Dabo should put the offense on the field first.
This game boils down to a chess match between the brilliant defensive mind of Brent Venables and Bobby Petrino’s brilliant offensive mind. These are two of the most complete teams in the nation and probably the two best quarterbacks in the nation. It’s a rare epic Heisman showdown between the preseason favorite and the current favorite. It’s hard to imagine an October 1st game with more on the line than this one. And therein lies one of the keys. Watson and the Tigers have been through the fire. They’ve been on the big stage time and again, and they know how to handle adversity. Louisville, on the other hand, is in uncharted territory. This is the highest their program has ever been ranked, and it is Lamar Jackson’s first night game in Death Valley.
All of that aside, I have faith in Venables. He is arguably the best DC in the land, and he will have a plan to shut down Louisville just like he has done to so many other prolific offenses. Just think about what he has done to Paul Johnson over the past 3 years. Or Oklahoma in the past two bowl games. Baker Mayfield, Trevor Knight, Marquise Williams, Justin Thomas. These are some big-time quarterbacks that Venables has managed to confuse and rattle with exotic blitzes and multiple looks. I think he will do the same to Lamar Jackson…for the most part. Jackson will still elude some tackles and make some improvisational plays, but I think the nasty Clemson front seven, with the adrenaline of the night Death Valley crowd, will make enough stops to break serve. The key will be to hit Jackson over and over and over again until he doesn’t know what state he’s in….and then hit him some more! Make him desperate to get rid of the ball. Don’t give him time to dance and juke. Just blow him up in the backfield and gang tackle him! Jackson shredded Florida State with his legs because they were constantly on their heels and making poor reads. This Clemson defense demonstrated the ability to maintain eye discipline and gap control against a difficult Georgia Tech offense last week. In a lot of ways, that was a great rehearsal for the Louisville offense they’re about to face. Make Jackson throw the ball to beat you, and when in doubt hit him! If he pitches the ball to the running back, and he goes for 12 yards, so be it. Better that than to fall for the fake like the Seminoles did and let Jackson run up the middle for a 40-yard touchdown. If Jackson turns into Peyton Manning and starts dropping dimes all night, so be it. Do not let him run!
It is critical to protect the football. We saw what happened to the incredible Death Valley atmosphere in the 2013 GameDay matchup of #3 Clemson and #5 FSU after the Tigers fumbled on the second play of the game, leading to a Florida State touchdown a couple plays later. Let’s hope we don’t see anything like that on Saturday! The Tigers can’t afford to give this prolific Louisville offense extra possessions.
That being said, I think the Tigers come out with an enormous chip on their shoulders. They are the defending ACC Champs and National Runners-Up, and all they’ve heard about for the last two weeks is that Louisville is unstoppable. The defense is playing as well as any in the nation, and they will feed off the Death Valley faithful. The offense is finding its groove at just the right time. Above all else, #4 is 22-1 in games he has started and finished. He has been on the biggest of stages and never rattled. It is on these stages that he is at his best. I have predicted a Clemson win in the last 19 straight games and have only been wrong once—by 5 points. I’m not about to change that now for an upstart Louisville team facing Death Valley at night in front of a GameDay crowd! #3 Clemson delivers a rude awakening to #3 Louisville Death Valley style, reestablishing the pecking order atop the ACC. Clemson extends its school record home win streak to 19 games, just a few behind Florida State for the nation’s longest active home win streak, and improves to 4-1 all-time when hosting GameDay. More importantly, the Tigers entrench themselves in the ACC Atlantic driver’s seat. The prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in ’16, a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff and second National Title continues……….
CLEMSON 38 Louisville 28