The Clemson football team has to quickly turn the page. Yes, the Tigers were beaten down by Notre Dame on Saturday night and now need a tremendous amount of help in order to make the College Football Playoff. But three games remain, and the last thing head coach Dabo Swinney wants is one loss turning into two.
The Tigers' (8-1, 6-0 ACC) remaining regular season games are all at Memorial Stadium, and the homestretch begins with a visit from red-hot Louisville. After starting the year at 2-3, the Cardinals (6-3, 3-3) have ripped off four straight wins, all of which were by at least two touchdowns. Louisville can't catch the Tigers in the Atlantic standings this season, but they can make a statement by going into Death Valley and getting a victory.
Louisville at No. 10 Clemson
When Louisville Has the Ball
Malik Cunningham has not had the season that many expected. He hasn't been awful, but all of his numbers are off what he produced in 2021. The good news for Cards fans is that the fifth-year quarterback is coming off his most efficient performance, one where he completed 70 percent of his throws with three touchdowns against James Madison. Helping matters is that Central Arkansas transfer Tyler Hudson has emerged as a No. 1 receiving option after a sparkling 142-yard outing versus JMU.
But the primary reason for Louisville's recent offensive success has been a developing running game. Last year's team ran for more than 200 yards a game, but Cunningham led the way with 1,031 rushing yards. While the quarterback once again has the most yardage on the ground, Tennessee transfer Tiyon Evans has gone over 100 yards in each of the past two contests and Jawhar Jordan has been productive as well. The guys in the backfield seem to be in lockstep with a veteran offensive line, a group that has also done a nice job protecting Cunningham in the passing game.
And all eyes will be on the battle up front. Notre Dame abused Clemson's vaunted defensive line for 60 minutes, as everyone on the Tiger sideline knew what the Irish were going to do, but nothing could be done to stop the Irish. ND's 263 rushing yards were the most by a Clemson opponent since Louisville and Lamar Jackson had 273 in 2016. Beyond everything else, Tyler Davis, Bryan Bresee, and Myles Murphy have to get back to owning the line of scrimmage. Louisville has more options in the passing game than Notre Dame has, so controlling the Louisville running game is a must.
When Clemson Has the Ball
Much like on defense, it starts up front when Clemson has the ball. So much attention is paid to the quarterback position, but Notre Dame thoroughly dominated the line of scrimmage on this side of the ball as well. The Tigers ended the game with just 90 rushing yards, and the Irish had four sacks on the night. For much of the season, Clemson has run the ball fairly consistently, but Saturday night was an ugly performance by the offensive line.
As for the quarterback play, it has to improve as well. For the most part, everything in the passing game was short and to the outside. The Tigers were either not able or just unwilling to attack downfield, and whether that's on the quarterback or the receivers, big plays in the passing game have been lacking this season. DJ Uiagalelei was far from spectacular, but the one series with Cade Klubnik under center was a disaster, and the expectation is that No. 5 is out there taking snaps this weekend.
It will be interesting to see how Clemson attacks this Louisville defense. After giving up 208 rushing yards in each of their first two games, the Cardinals have been much better against the run and now find themselves sixth in the ACC in rushing defense. The passing defense has been pretty good as well, allowing just under 210 yards per game, but there have been more up-and-down performances in that area this fall. What the Cards do best is attack, ranking second nationally in sacks and 10th in tackles for lost yardage. End YaYa Diaby is the prime disruptor but Louisville will come at you from many different directions.
For all that went wrong on Saturday night for Clemson, it was one game. This may not be one of the elite Tiger teams of recent memory, but they were 8-0 coming in and had already clinched the ACC Atlantic. Louisville is playing its best football in several years, but their last three wins have come at home and the game to start the winning streak was at 3-6 Virginia. There is way too much talent and pride in the Clemson front seven to expect a repeat of what happened in South Bend. Louisville will make some things happen because Cunningham, Hudson, and Evans are good players and the defense creates havoc. But at home, coming off an embarrassing showing, Clemson gets back to its winning ways.
Prediction: Clemson 27, Louisville 21
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
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