Kickoff: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network
Spread: Clemson -4, O/U 46.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)
Trevor Lawrence threw two early interceptions, but the third-ranked Clemson Tigers were led on the afternoon by running back Travis Etienne. Etienne finished with 192 yards on just 14 carries and a touchdown, as the Tigers rushed for 298 yards. The Clemson defense held Louisville to 8-of-22 passing and forced three turnovers, as the Tigers cruised to a 45-10 win over the Cardinals.
Clemson leads the all-time series 6-0. The Tigers have scored 40+ points in each of the last four games against the Cardinals.
2021 Clemson Tigers at a Glance
After starting the season as a candidate for the College Football Playoff, Clemson has taken a big step back in their 2021 campaign. The Tigers enter Saturday night with a 5-3 record, their most notable wins coming at home against Florida State and at Syracuse. Clemson’s losses have come against #1 Georgia, NC State, and Pitt.
Clemson Offense Breakdown
The easy root of Clemson’s problems has been the massive inconsistency this offense has shown throughout the season. Clemson has been able to reload on talent in the last decade (Deshaun Watson with Trevor Lawrence, Wayne Gallman with Travis Etienne, Mike Williams with Tee Higgins, etc.), but the next group of guys haven’t come around to living up to the lofty expectations that the program has earned now.
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei had gigantic outings last year against Boston College and Notre Dame, but he has struggled a lot with accuracy issues and general ball security. He is completing just 56 percent of his passes and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, which has hindered the potential of the offense. Uiagalelei can run in spurts, but he doesn’t offer the athletic upside that Taisun Phommachanh briefly showed against Pitt a few weeks ago.
The lack of big play ability from this team has also hindered the offense significantly. Clemson has only completed 28 passes of 15+ yards, and 12 passes of 25+ yards in eight games this season. For context, Louisville has had 41 passes of 15+ yards, and 17 of 25+ yards. Pitt has had 77 passes of 15+ yards, and 29 passes of 25+ yards. That’s allowed teams this season to be able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and take away some of the screens and RPOs that Clemson has thrived with the last few seasons.
However, Clemson has a decent plus-matchup with their receivers. Justyn Ross and Joseph Ngata are the top two receivers on this roster by a significant margin, and are big targets at 6’4″, 205 lbs. and 6’3″, 220 lbs., respectively. Louisville has struggled against Clemson’s massive receivers in recent years, as they can just simply elevate and win 50/50 balls against a lot of corners. Ross was moved to slot receiver to start the season, which sounds like a good idea in theory to expand Ross’s repertoire for a future NFL career. But Ross has shown that he plays better outside, and I think the plan should be for him and Ngata to play outside together.
In past years, Clemson has been able to win games against Louisville with a very strong running game. The Tigers have averaged 298 rushing yards against the Cardinals in their last five games.
Clemson doesn’t have a game changing back as they’re used to having in the Dabo Swinney era, but they still have some decent options. Will Shipley is a five-star recruit that can flat out run in the open field, and Kobe Pace has shown signs of promise when he is given a steady workload. With Lyn-J Dixon entering the transfer portal midseason, that’s left Clemson having to rely on two underclassmen to carry the load in the running game.
Players to Know: QB D.J. Uiagalelei (56% completion, 1,291 yards, five TDs, six INTs); WR Justyn Ross (38 rec., 416 yards, TD); WR Joseph Ngata (21 rec., 404 yards, three TDs)
Clemson Defense Breakdown
As mediocre as Clemson’s offense has been this season, the defense has remained elite, even with all-conference cornerback Derion Kendrick transferring to Georgia. The Tigers rank 21st in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (113.1 YPG), and 45th in passing yards allowed per game (211 YPG) on 6.2 yards per attempt.
The defense suffered another big blow this season when star defensive lineman Bryan Breese suffered a season-ending injury against NC State, but edge rushers Xavier Thomas and Myles Murphy are a very talented duo. Both guys are uber athletic and can punish opposing tackles with outstanding strength. Ruke Orhorhoro (23 tackles, six TFLs) and Tre Williams (3.5 TFLs) have been great replacing Breese inside, and can eat up space on inside runs to allow edge rushers or blitzers to run free. The notoriously blitz happy scheme that defensive coordinator Brent Venables runs puts a ton of pressure on the offense to identify where the blitz is coming from, and be able to make plays off of it.
Linebacker James Skalski is a veteran that anchors the defense, and is generally in on almost every play along with Baylon Spector. Both are the leading tacklers on this Clemson team by a wide margin, and just fly everywhere once the play starts.
The secondary has been relatively solid, even without Kendrick to bolster their ranks. Cornerback Andrew Booth, Jr. has been solid as a man corner with some room to grow in a potential 2022 season. He and safety Nolan Turner are among the team’s leading tacklers as well, both ranking in the top six on Clemson’s roster in that category. Freshman Andrew Mukuba and senior Mario Goodrich have a combined 13 PBUs this year (almost half of Clemson’s 30 this season), with Goodrich having seven PBUs in his last three games.
Players to Know: DEs Xavier Thomas (4.5 sacks, 5.5 TFLs) and Myles Murphy (4.5 sacks, 8.5 TFLs); LB James Skalski (66 tackles)
Keys to the Game
Which front seven will perform better on Saturday night?
This game will come down to the performance of both Louisville and Clemson’s front seven. Both teams have produced almost near identical numbers in the front seven; Clemson and Louisville are fifth and sixth in the ACC in tackles for loss (only one TFL separating the two), as well as third and fifth in sacks (three sacks separating them).
For Louisville, their front seven will especially be important because now they have to finish the season without star cornerback Kei’Trel Clark. They will have to continue applying pressure as they have the last two weeks, and force Uiagalelei off rhythm with his receivers. Clemson has some tough matchups outside with their big receivers in Ross and Ngata, but that can be offset if Louisville can get in the backfield. Quality performances from the Louisville front seven will help the secondary out tremendously, as they try to figure out what their cornerback rotation will be like in the last month of the regular season.
Clemson’s front seven has been the driving force behind their 5-3 season, and perhaps the main reason why the Tigers are even still a potential bowl team this season. For Louisville, they have to be able to diagnose where the blitz is coming from and counter it. If they can hit some big pass plays against it, the Cardinals should be able to keep it close or upset the Tigers.
Can Malik Cunningham rebound from last week?
Malik Cunningham’s performance against Clemson will be very instrumental in a potential Louisville win over Clemson.
Great quarterback play has been a huge driving force in Clemson’s losses this year. NC State’s Devin Leary completed 71 percent of his passes and threw four touchdowns, while Pitt’s Kenny Pickett completed 64 percent of his passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns. They were able to connect on a lot of short and intermediate passes and navigated their way around the blitz.
I’d expect a rebound game after last week’s rough outing, but Cunningham doesn’t have to be a sharp passer to win this game. For Louisville’s offense to win, they will need Cunningham to avoid getting under duress and him to create plays with his feet. Louisville will take some shots downfield and they need to hit them, but the key thing is that Cunningham does not let the blitz affect his rhythm and make plays like he can.