Last week, Louisville led in the fourth quarter and Clemson trailed in the fourth quarter. The teams came out on opposite ends of the spectrum. Clemson will try to keep its slim ACC title hopes alive on Saturday when the teams meet at Cardinal Stadium.
Overall, only one game separates the teams. Louisville comes in with a 4-4 record (2-3 in ACC play) while Clemson is 5-3 (4-2 in conference games). The Tigers need to win out to have any chance of winning the ACC and need multiple losses from both NC State and Wake Forest. The Cardinals simply hope to become bowl eligible.
Prior to the Cardinals joining the ACC, Clemson and Louisville never met on the gridiron. Clemson has won all six meetings as conference foes, including the last three by an average margin of nearly 41 points per game. The schools did not meet last season because of the schedule changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clemson at Louisville
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Clemson -4
When Clemson Has the Ball
It took two touchdowns (one of them being a fluky defensive score on the final play) in the final three minutes, but Clemson finally scored more than 21 points against an FBS team in the Tigers' 30-20 home win over Florida State last Saturday. Clemson's offense remains a work in progress as quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has not played in line with the preseason hype he received, and that's an understatement.
Fortunately, Will Shipley stepped up with 128 rushing yards and two scores against the Seminoles, while his backfield mate Kobe Pace missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19. But for the season, the Tigers are just 11th in the ACC in rushing at 150.5 yards per game. They have 14 touchdowns on the ground in eight games compared to 33 in 12 contests last season.
Even with talented wide receivers like Justyn Ross and Joseph Ngata, the passing game hasn't clicked and the offensive line has been inconsistent. Uiagalelei has just five touchdown passes and six interceptions entering November, and this is a big reason why Clemson ranks last in the ACC in both total (328.3 ypg) and scoring (21.3 ppg) offense.
For three quarters last week, Louisville appeared to be in the midst of playing its best defensive game of the season. Then it gave up three straight touchdown drives in a 28-13 loss to NC State. Louisville remains in the bottom half of the ACC in both total (415.4 ypg, 10th) and scoring (27.1 ppg, ninth) defense but appears to be improving as the season goes on. After losing linebacker Monty Montgomery earlier in the season, however, the Cardinals recently lost Kei’Trel Clark, who may be their best cover man.
With Clark out, safety Kenderick Duncan is the player to watch in the secondary. The strength for Louisville's defense is at linebacker. C.J. Avery and Jack Fagot are both very experienced players and the top two tacklers. Yasir Abdullah ranks fourth in the ACC with six sacks. Freshman Ashton Gillotte leads all Cardinal defensive linemen with three sacks, but the best player up front may be YaYa Diaby (1.5 sacks).
When Louisville Has the Ball
The "strength vs. strength" matchup for Saturday's contest will be the Louisville offense against the Clemson defense. Although the Cardinals managed a season-low 13 points against NC State last week, quarterback Malik Cunningham is an electrifying player who is the team's leading passer and rusher. Throughout his career, Cunningham has been plagued by turnovers but has just five interceptions this season to go with 22 total touchdowns. His 13 rushing touchdowns lead the ACC.
Jalen Mitchell and Hassan Hall help Cunningham on the ground. Mitchell picks up the tough yards while Hall is the big-play back. Among pass catchers, the Cardinals have five players with at least 260 receiving yards this season. Jordan Watkins is the leading receiver, but tight end Marshon Ford is who Cunningham will target on third down. Ford leads the team with 33 catches. The offensive line has allowed the fewest sacks among conference teams (11), with Cunningham's mobility making the unit's job a little easier.
Clemson's offense may be the worst in the ACC (and in the entire FBS), but the defense remains the gold standard. The Tigers are third nationally in scoring defense (15.3 ppg), and only Syracuse is giving up fewer yards per game in the conference (324.1). James Skalski and Baylon Spector lead a very experienced linebacking corps. Up front, Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas headline a pass rush that has been depleted a little bit by injuries. The two have combined for 9.5 of the Tigers' 23 sacks. Clemson ranks third in the ACC (and tied for 23rd nationally) in that category.
This season, the Tigers have surrendered a total of nine offensive touchdowns and only two of those have come on the ground. In the secondary, Andrew Booth Jr. is the best cover corner while Nolan Turner, R.J. Mickens, and Andrew Mukuba man the safety spots. Mickens leads the team with two interceptions this season. On the final play of the game last week against Florida State, Barrett Carter scored the first defensive touchdown of the season for Clemson. The Tigers also aren't generating as many takeaways this season (12) compared to last (23).
Clemson has done a pretty good job keeping dual-threat quarterbacks like Jeff Sims and Jordan Travis in check. Cunningham and Louisville however, may stand the best chance at stretching the field against the Tigers. It's far from a strength, but the Clemson offense has seen minimal improvement in recent weeks. And with the Cardinals' top corner (Clark) banged up, that ultimately could be a big difference come Saturday.
Prediction: Clemson 20, Louisville 17
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.