While Florida State may sit atop the national rankings, two fellow Atlantic Division rivals square off Saturday in a matchup of the ACC’s top offense versus its top defense.
Louisville brings the country’s top total defense into its first-ever meeting with Clemson but they will face by far their stiffest test to date. Despite its 3-2 record _ both losses came versus the nation’s elite in Georgia and against the Seminoles in overtime _ Clemson averages more than 40 points and nearly 500 yards a game.
“They’re great all around offensively,” Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin said Wednesday. “They have a good quarterback, a freshman quarterback. Their offensive line is pretty good. They have got guys on the outside at receiver that can really run and catch the ball. They’re the No. 1 offense in the ACC so we’ve got to come to play as a defense.”
Deshaun Watson now leads the Clemson attack as a true freshman and he’s drawing considerable praise from the Cardinals.
“I think people are going to be hearing about him for a long time,” first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “They’ve kind of got in their groove now over the last little bit now with him.”
Watson entered in the second quarter of the Tigers’ 23-17 overtime loss at Florida State and both his subsequent starts have been high-powered outings. He threw for a record six touchdowns in the 50-35 win against North Carolina and had 329 total yards, including two rushing and passing touchdowns each, in last week’s 41-0 shutout over N.C. State even while resting for the final final quarter.
Watson’s efficiency rating of 197.9 places him second in the country behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariotta, a likely first-round NFL draft pick after this season. He has completed 76 of 106 passes for 1,181 yards and 12 touchdowns, throwing just one interception.
A native of Gainesville, Ga., Watson’s career as one of the country’s top prospects was one Grantham followed intensely during his time as the Georgia defensive coordinator.
“I do know Watson a little bit from the fact that he’s from the state of Georgia,” Grantham said. “I think he’s an awesome young man. He’s got all the characteristics you look for in a quarterback. The intangible things, obviously, I know about him and I’ve got a great amount of respect for him. … He’s getting the ball to playmakers.”
Watson’s style may remind Louisville fans of their own freshman signal caller, Reggie Bonnafon.
“On the field, they’re pretty similar,” Grantham said. “They’ve both got very good arms, can throw the ball down the field. They can throw the deep ball. Both guys can make plays with their feet and they can make a bad play into a positive play, which is something that creates issues for defenses.”
The defense is focused on making Watson pass and corralling him, Mauldin said.
“You don’t want him to run. We believe he’s the leading rusher for their team and you just don’t want him to run. If you can keep the outside contained and keep our middles contained and make him pass the ball then we should be alright.”
Louisville will need to remain poised in Memorial Stadium with its 81,500 seats and “Death Valley” moniker if it hopes for a crucial conference win on the road. But Mauldin offered a bold prediction, so long as his defense that is allowing just 231 yards and less than 13 points a game can make some key plays early.
“I just know that if we get the first stop in the game, we’re going to win that game,” Mauldin said. “Because we, as a defense, know that the first three-and-out, we’re already in their heads already. We know that if we play with a confident defense then pretty much the game is ours.”