Tigers come to Louisville looking to avoid upset against surging Cardinals
On Oct. 1, 2016, Clemson and Louisville played one of the more memorable games of that season. Down 18 points at halftime, Louisville made a second-half charge behind eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, taking the lead in the fourth quarter. The Tigers fought back themselves, winning the game when the Cardinals came up just short on a fourth-down attempt in the waning seconds.
The fortunes of both teams have been radically different since that time. While Clemson remained Clemson, Louisville fell into the abyss, bottoming out with a 2-10 record last season. This year, though, new Cardinals head coach Scott Satterfield has his team climbing back up the ACC Atlantic standings. With a 2-1 conference record following an exciting 62-59 win at Wake Forest, the Cardinals are in second place in the division, just one game behind the Tigers in the loss column.
The only games between the two programs have come since Louisville became a member of the ACC in 2014, and Clemson has won all five meetings.
Clemson at Louisville
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -24.5
When Clemson Has the Ball
The Clemson offense, which faced some questions following the 21-20 victory over North Carolina, found its groove last Saturday, lighting up Florida State right from the opening kickoff. By the middle of the third quarter, all the starters were out, and the Tigers were up 42-0.
Aside from one terrible decision that resulted in an interception, quarterback Trevor Lawrence looked more comfortable as he threw for three scores. But it was the running game that was the big story offensively. Travis Etienne ran with more conviction than he had since Week 1, gobbling up 127 yards on 17 carries. As a team, Clemson rushed for 320 yards, giving Dabo Swinney’s offense the balance it needs.
The Tigers should be able to achieve that same balance against a Louisville defense that is 80th against the run and 104th at defending the pass. The Cards don’t rush the passer all that well, and they don’t create a lot of negative plays. But they are hardly devoid of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Linebackers C.J. Avery and Rodjay Burns have combined for 83 tackles, with 8.5 of them resulting in lost yardage. Defensive backs Chandler Jones, Russ Yeast, and Anthony Johnson also have a knack for breaking up passes, so Lawrence will have to accurately analyze situations in the passing game. But if Clemson’s offense carries over the momentum from last week into this game, the Tigers will have no trouble putting up lots of points.
When Louisville Has the Ball
The Cardinals are 4-2 thanks to an outstanding offense. They are third in the ACC in rushing offense and fifth in passing. Put that together and you have the league's third-best unit in terms of total offense, one that is just eight yards per game behind Clemson. One of the big reasons that the Cards' offense has burst to life this season is the play of running back Javian Hawkins. The redshirt freshman's 622 yards rank second in the ACC behind AJ Dillon of Boston College.
Hawkins' running has opened things up in the passing game. Jawon Pass started the year at quarterback and when he was injured, Malik Cunningham came in a provided an upgrade at the position. When Cunningham suffered his own injury last week, true freshman Evan Conley guided the team to the victory over Wake. In reality, Conley saw considerable action the week before at Boston College and his ability to utilize the talented receiving corps of Dez Fitzpatrick, Chatarius Atwell, and Seth Dawkins has made him the toast of the town. With Pass set to undergo season-ending surgery on his toe and Cunningham's status uncertain, don't be surprised if Conley gets an opportunity to start.
Whoever is at quarterback is going up against one of the best defenses in America from back to front. Tyler Davis and Jordan Williams have been nasty in the middle of the defensive line, Tanner Muse and K'Von Wallace have ruled the back end, and in between Isaiah Simmons has been one of the most disruptive players in America. Louisville's offense has been extremely effective this season, but it will get the ultimate test this weekend.
The question in this game isn’t about talent. It’s clear that Clemson has the superior athletes and is the more balanced team. The question: Was the Tigers’ performance against Florida State the start of a trend, or was it a one-off dominant showing? Going off history, I think we know the answer. The Tigers have shown moments of weakness early in seasons before, only to regroup — often after an open date — and flex their muscles the rest of the way. On the road, against a team with a very good offense, Clemson may not be perfect. But the Tigers will win, and it will come fairly easily.
Prediction: Clemson 49, Louisville 21
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.