What 2 Watch 4 is back! I’m going to give you 4 ‘things’ to watch during the game – player match-ups, strengths/weaknesses, etc. – so you’ll have a sense of what to watch for as the game plays out. I’m going to give you 4 keys to the game, so to speak, based on my research of this opponent, and 2 predictions based on those things we’ll be watching to play a large role in the eventual outcome of the game. Ergo, you have “what 2 watch 4”.
Last week, I predicted a 49-31 Louisville win and was a touchdown off at 47-35. I predicted Lamar to score 4 TDs, and he bested me with 6. And I also predicted Lamar to throw at least 2 passes for over 40 yards. He didn’t do that one, but he did throw several for 20+, a 30-yard TD pass and a 75-yard TD pass that was one for the career highlights video when that day comes. All in all, a nice day’s work for the defending Heisman winner.
This week is obviously the biggest test of the season so far for Louisville, and is the toughest game (as it stands now) on the schedule for the year, even with it being at home and a blackout game. Clemson comes to PJCS as the defending national champions and as one of the favorites to play for that trophy again this season. They lost a lot o talent, but have reloaded and look a force so far, albeit through just 2 games and against opponents we’re not sure what to make of just yet. Either way, the Tigers are favored for a reason, and this game will be a benchmark for where Louisville stands on the national stage in 2017. Clemson hasn’t given up a touchdown this season. This is a statement opportunity for Louisville.
Establish some kind of run game to open up the pass.
Auburn’s 1st game was against Georgia Southern, so we add that large caveat to the equation, but in their 1st contest they ran 53 times for 351 yards and 3 TDs. Against Clemson, they had 42 rushing attempts for 38 yards. A decent chunk of that is negative yards for QB Jarrett Stidham, as Kamryn Pettway put up a little more respectable 74 yards on 22 carries. But either way, the tigers of Auburn finished with less than a yard per carry against Clemson and still only rank 19 spots below Louisville in rushing offense. Clemson’s rushing defense ranks 22nd, giving up 1.83 yards per play. Louisville averages 5.95 yards per carry, which will be the best Clemson has faced this season. If Louisville is going to have any chance to move the ball, we will need to see the talent gap between the Lamar Jackson/Malik Williams combo and that of Jarrett Stidham/Kamryn Pettway.
Make the short-to-medium throws.
Clemson ranks 2nd in the nation in pass defense, but it’s hard to evaluate a secondary that really hasn’t been tested. Kent State threw the ball exactly 4 times, completing 1 of those passes for 1 yard. Auburn’s Stidham is a long way from Lamar Jackson, completing just 13 of 24 attempts against Clemson for 79 total yards. Ironically 8 of those 13 completions went to 5’9″ speed man who, with 27 career catches going into that game, wasn’t exactly the highlighted name on the scouting report. What that highlights (and I just finished re-watching the game for verification) is a lack of a deep presence, but an opportunity to expose the underneath coverage. Clemson is a defense that either rushes 3 or 7, not much in between. If the line can hold long enough and Lamar can put the touch on his underneath passes that has been missing up to this point, completing the all-around passing game, Louisville could move the ball more easily than either of Clemson’s opponents have so far. And what better offensive mind to orchestrate that game plan than Bobby Petrino.
Shut down the run, make Bryant beat you through the air.
Now is the time this Louisville defense proves its #2 national ranking against the run. The Cards are giving up 1.55 yards per carry through 2 games against tougher opponents (at least by average) than Clemson. But… the Cards rank 123rd at defending the pass. That isn’t an ideal stat to read before a game against a top 5 team, but while Clemson may be the only team who has as deep a corps of receiving talent as Louisville, they don’t have the same caliber of QB to distribute the football. Kelly Bryant finds himself well behind Lamar Jackson in yards and touchdowns at 417 and 1 on the year, with an INT to go with. He’s prone to throwing into coverage, though that hasn’t really bitten him to-date – Auburn didn’t take many opportunities to try for picks and the one he threw against Kent State was a tipped ball in the end zone. He may throw into traffic, but he completes 2/3 of his passing attempts. It will be up to Louisville’s defense to force Bryant to win the game with his arm, opening up more potential for mistakes. Bryant is also their main running threat, similar to Lamar, so if Louisville can rattle him in the ground game, that should lead into some success defending the pass. Conversely, if the Cards aren’t able to do that, we could see Bryant put on a similar kind of momentum-fueled superhero performance that we’re used to seeing from Lamar. He’s not quite Lamar’s level, but he’s as dangerous as we’ll see this season, and we’re going to have to take away his strengths,
Win the turnover battle.
The theme for this last key is a copy/paste from last week, but it’s for entirely different reasons this go-around. Against UNC, winning the turnover battle was going to allow Louisville to extend the gap between them and their opponents. This time, it’s make or break. Auburn (13th ranked Auburn at the time, mind you) forced and recovered 2 fumbles against Clemson and still managed just 2 FGs on offense, even without having to turn the ball over themselves. This Clemson defense is good enough to win games against very good teams, without having to turn you over. If Louisville doesn’t at least not lose the turnover battle, winning this game will be extremely difficult.
Prediction 1: Louisville’s will score a TD on a return
Clemson’s defense will be difficult to penetrate, and a score while their defense is on the sideline would be a huge boost. Louisville’s D always has potential to turn a takeaway into a touchdown, but what about special teams? Clemson has only punted once this season, but gave up a 25 yard return on that punt. Louisville doesn’t have a high average on punt returns, but have a couple of guys who have shown big play capability. This game should bring about much more punting than Clemson have done this season, and it’d be nice to see a big return light up Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium again. If it’s not the defense, I might just place my bet on Seth Dawkins taking one to the house.
Prediction 2: The QBs will combine for more than 500 passing yards, less than 250 rushing yards.
This sounds like a stupid prediction if you’re not familiar with the players involved. The passing yards makes sense, but who makes a supposed “bold” claim about QB rushing yards? The game has evolved, and these 2 QBs are perfect representations of what the current era QB represents for his team’s rushing attack. Lamar Jackson’s 40 carries for 239 yards (6.0 avg) and 3 TDs are more impressive than Kelly Bryants 26 carries for 136 yards (5.2 avg) and 3 TDs, but Bryant still ranks in the top 100 in college football in yards and yards per game, and is one of the top 10 rushing QBs in the game, so he’s no slouch. This game, though, while it won’t be quite the defensive struggle that the Auburn vs Clemson game was, but it will still feature exceptional run defenses. I think both QBs likely eclipse 100 yards on the ground, but purely from volume – both of these guys will account for the vast majority of their teams’ offense, and for that reason they will accumulate the yards, but neither will have a huge day. If one of them does, that would be a real statement performance.
I actually feel that this is an even tougher home match-up for Louisville than the Jameis Winston-led FSU team that won here in 2014 on their way to a national semi-finals appearance. I’m not sure anyone is ready to anoint this Clemson team back-to-back champions just yet, but they have a very good chance. They have to prove it, and I think Clemson has more to lose in this game than Louisville does, but I also think Clemson has more to gain in this game than Louisville does. With a win, the Tigers solidify their position as a favorite for that playoff and college football’s elite status. There are still questions over whether Kelly Bryant can lead that team to reach its ceiling, and this game will be a major answer to those questions, one way or the other. Ultimately I think Clemson are the stronger overall team, while Louisville have the better star player. I don’t know if that’s going to be enough for the Cards.
Score Prediction: Louisville 24 – Clemson 31
Andy Knabel joined on as a contributing writer for The Cardinal Connect in August of 2013. You can follow Andy on Twitter @knabelism.