A Night in Death Valley: Louisville at Clemson Preview

Louisville Clemson
Photo: usatoday.com

Last Time: In a primetime Thursday night thriller, Louisville fell short against the Tigers 20-17. Louisville cut the lead in the fourth quarter on a 100-yard return from Traveon Samuel, and had one final possession to tie the game after missing a field goal. However, a botched snap in field goal range and an intercepted Hail Mary ended Louisville’s hope of an upset bid, sending them to 0-3 for the first time since 1984.

Clemson currently leads the series 2-0, with both games decided by three points.

About the Clemson Tigers

Clemson has, quite literally, everything you want in college football; top five head coach (Dabo Swinney), an elite quarterback (Deshaun Watson), incredible skill players (Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, etc.) and a good defense. There’s a reason this team was a kickoff return touchdown away from their first national championship since 1981.

But in spite of all of that, the Tigers are experiencing a similar regression that Florida State (2014) and Ohio State (2015) both had; after phenomenal seasons, they have not quite reached their potential. The Tigers have only blown out one opponent up to this point, but other than their near loss to Troy, they have two close, but solid road wins at Auburn and Georgia Tech, both formidable places to play at. It’ll be interesting to see how Clemson will respond with #3 Louisville coming to Death Valley, after being labeled as an underperforming team in 2016.

On offense, most people know what Clemson wants to do; fast tempo, short passes and runs, and then lob one deep pass for a touchdown. It’s a simple formula, but Dabo has had a way of just making it work against basically everyone. It’s why Clemson was a national finalist last season, and why they enter Saturday’s game with an 18-game home winning streak (last loss in 2013 to Florida State). Dabo has had many great players on offense from receivers like Sammy Watkins, to players like Deandre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, and Tajh Boyd. Not only do Dabo’s players have a ton of athleticism, they are able to do a lot of creative things on offense with them and keep almost any defense on their toes.

But what should be getting more credit to Clemson’s success is what defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been able to do for them. Since taking over in 2012, the Tigers have vaulted from 64th in total defense to a consistent top 10 defense, including #1 overall in 2014. Venables has been able to rely on a strong pass rush and forcing teams into uncomfortable 3rd-and-long situations, and has usually had a strong secondary to complement it. Even though Clemson has had a reputation for strong quarterbacks and several tremendous receivers, the defense, in my opinion, has been the biggest part as to why they’ve been a perennial ACC powerhouse.

Players to Watch

  • QB Deshaun Watson. Opening any discussion about Clemson and not mention Watson would be an exercise in futility. Watson will likely be a top draft pick in the 2017 class, and he does a lot of things very well. He is a dual-threat quarterback who is pretty polished as a passer, especially with touch passes. Watson has not been able to be as productive as he was last year, but that could either be attributed to a challenged offensive line
  • WR Mike Williams. Williams did not play last season against Louisville, but his presence is going to make a huge presence for Clemson. He leads a trio of excellent receivers including Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett, but what makes him so appealing as a target is his overall size and strength as a receiver. He’s able to take screens for big plays, or able to go over the top and high point the ball over cornerbacks who are significantly smaller than him. Josh Harvey-Clemons will likely be shaded over him, and a guy of his size able to double team Williams is going to be huge for Louisville.
  • LB Ben Boulware. With Clemson losing a ton of guys to the NFL, including first round picks Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, Boulware is now the leader and the spirit of Clemson’s fantastic defense. Boulware has been a key part of Clemson’s two wins against Louisville, hurting them with tackles in the backfield. If Boulware has a big game, Louisville is going to see some issues.

Keys to the Game

  1. Contain Gallman & Watson. The Clemson offense, which has usually been explosive dating back to the Tajh Boyd era, hasn’t necessarily been so to start this season. There are a lot of questions surrounding the Clemson offense, but for Louisville to win, they have to continue to contain the Tigers’ dynamic backfield. Louisville did a fairly good job last year of pressuring Watson and limiting his production, but Gallman was able to get going and had a solid day. If you factor in Clemson’s struggles with the offensive line up to this point, guys like James Hearns and DeAngelo Brown are going to have major roles, if Louisville expects to leave Clemson with a win.
  2. Get the running game going. Although last year’s team was radically different on offense compared to this year, Louisville could establish the run with their backfield of Jackson and Radcliff. Last year’s offensive line got pushed around by Clemson’s strong defensive line, and even though they lost a lot of talent, Clemson has reloaded under defensive coordinator Brent Venables. If Radcliff can get going, it will take a lot of pressure off Lamar Jackson to need another superhuman performance to beat Clemson.
  3. Win the turnover battle. This segues into how important the offensive lines will be, but turnovers will play a huge part in how this game will play out again. Louisville has been able to capitalize on turnovers the last two years against Clemson and get critical points to stay within striking distance of a win. This game could, quite literally, come down to who takes care of the football better. Keeping Lamar from turning the ball over in a hostile environment is crucial, but continuing to pressure Watson into errant throws could perhaps be even more critical for Louisville.

Staff Predictions

Justin Krueger: 35-31. At some point, you have to believe that you’re witnessing something magical. With 25 touchdowns and an overwhelming amount of national hype on Lamar Jackson, it might just be “his year” to win the Heisman. Make no mistake about it, Clemson will give them hell for 60 minutes in Death Valley. Clemson will be a major threat to any team they play this season, with an NFL-caliber quarterback and a strong defense. But with how well Lamar Jackson is playing, and how strong the defense has looked versus a Clemson offense that has “underperformed” in multiple games this season, there are a million ways this could play out. Ultimately, Clemson will keep it far closer than any team up to this point, but Louisville and Bobby Petrino keep the magic rolling and find a way to win.

Jeremy Wahman: 34-17. It’s 14-14 at halftime and Louisville rolls.

Jacob Pratt: 42-27.

LJ The Fiasco: 38-35, late field goal and big stop on defense seals it.

Paige Sherrard: 42-38.

Jeff Nunn: 42-21. Lamar adds three more touchdowns and Jaire returns another one.

Mitch Motley: 49-24.

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