There were a lot of excited Cardinal fans at the ACC celebration a few years ago. Everyone understood the significance of that moment and knew what kind of opportunity it was for the Louisville athletic department. While basketball has always found a way to thrive the other sports and athletic programs like football needed to be in a conference like the ACC to really establish themselves.
After years of leaping around to different conferences it has been great to see the University of Louisville Football team finally be in a legitimate football conference like the ACC. The Louisville Football program has battled its way to some national relevance and have shown that they can contend. Since the move to the ACC I’ve heard coaches, players and fans say how they are grateful for the opportunity. And I am grateful for the opportunity. On Saturday night, it’s time for the Louisville Football program to take advantage of that opportunity.
The Cardinals and the Clemson Tigers don’t have a long history. Three games define the story between these teams. Clemson has beat the Cardinals in all three of those meetings but it has been very competitive with the total margin of victory in all three games being just 15 points. Football is a game of inches. The three games between these teams has proven just that. 2014 it came down to one last play on the goal line, 2015 the Cardinals were just finger tips away from winning the game in the closing seconds and last year were just inches from another chance to win it with a goal line play.
If the Cardinals are to reach the summit of the ACC they will have to eventually beat Clemson. The stage is set for that final climb. Standing in the way of another transformational moment for the Cardinals football program is another very good Clemson football team. Once again Dabo Swinney has a roster loaded with talent, speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball. Clemson comes into Papa John’s stadium as the defending National Champions and are 2-0 after beating #13 Auburn 14-6 last week. The Tigers also come in ranked first in the nation in passing defense, second in total defense and sacks after their two wins of the season.
Some of the names on the Clemson offensive unit have changed but their attack remains the same. Junior QB Kelly Bryant takes over the reins of this group. He is a dual threat athlete that will use his arm and legs to make plays. So far, this year, Bryant has 417 yards with a pick and a TD through the air, and leads Clemson with 136 yards and three scores on 26 carries. They don’t have Deshaun Watson anymore but Bryant is a very capable QB. When it comes to their running game I would say that Clemson is in a very similar situation that Louisville is in. After losing RB Wayne Gallman who took the lion’s share of carries among Clemson running backs over the past three seasons they are still searching for “That Guy” again. This season they have split those duties with four guys. Their leading rushers coming in are Tavien Feaster (86 yard, 1 touchdown), Travis Etienne (81 yards, 1 touchdown), C.J. Fuller (62 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Adam Choice (41 yards, 1 touchdown). Out of this group C.J. Fuller is expected to emerge as their leader.
The Tigers have a balanced attack through two games this season with 449 yards on the ground and 497 yards through the air. After their coaching staff watched the Louisville game film I expect them to try to exploit the Cardinals secondary with All-American Jaire Alexander still on the mend. First-round draft pick Mike Williams is gone but they have a very talented group of wide receivers led by Hunter Renfrow (78 yards), Ray-Ray McCloud (105 yards) and Deon Cain (97 yards, 1 touchdown). These three guys have combined for 201 yards and 3 touchdowns in the last three games against the Cardinals. Cain is the deep threat guy and I look for him to see a lot of balls coming his way on Saturday night. His 18.5 yards per catch average is fourth on a career basis in Clemson history. He had a 61-yard touchdown reception from Kelly Bryant in the opener against Kent State. Renfrow is their clutch guy. Four times Renfrow made a third-down reception that gave Clemson a first down against Auburn. Blocking up front for this Clemson offensive attack is one of the best offensive lines in college football. This group is led by OG Tyrone Crowder (ranked #125 by NFL:.com), and OT Mitch Hyatt (ranked #27 by NFL.com; #35 by Sporting News; #58 by Sports Illustrated).
Coach Sirmon and his defense will have faced some of the best young football minds in the game after these first three games. Coach Dabo Swinney just might be the best they face all season. Now 91-28 for a .765 percentage at Clemson he will throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Louisville defense on Saturday night. Senior safety Chucky Williams has started his final season with a bang. He has 9 tackles and an interception through two games. I hope he can repeat his best performance of 2016 on Saturday night. That game came at Clemson, where he recorded seven tackles, recovered a pair of fumbles and picked off a pass. I’m hoping that Jaire Alexander can make a triumphant return to this Cardinal defense this weekend as he also has a pretty good history against the Tigers picking off two passes last year. If he can’t go or only gets limited minutes Ronald Walker will be counted on to continue to step up. Walker has 13 tackles through two games. Other guys who have started off this season with a bang and that will be counted on heavily this week include Trevon Young, a senior outside linebacker who returned to the lineup after a hip injury. He has 9 tackles, a sack and two pass breakups. Safety Zykiesis Cannon who has picked up where he left off from last season. Starting in the secondary in the first two games, Cannon leads the team in tackles with 14. Sophomore Jonathan Greenard is becoming a force off the bench for the Cardinals’ defense. Seeing action in both games he has been credited with 4.5 tackles for loss, which is second in the ACC and 11th nationally. Big task this week but this is a unit that will be up for the challenge.
A lot of the talk this week about the Clemson vs. Louisville game has been about the match-up between Louisville’s offense and Clemson’s defense. Lamar Jackson leads a Louisville offense that averages 614.5 yards per game, fifth best in the nation. Louisville averages 7.6 yards per play 15th best in the nation, including 9.1 yards per pass attempt. The Cardinals have scored 10 touchdowns in two games. Lamar Jackson is off to a great start, leading the nation in total offense with 505 yards per game. He has thrown for 771 and rushed for 239. Passing he is 55-85 for 771 yards and five touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception. The one thing that has been missing from this offensive juggernaut is an established run game. For this team to be what it can be that must happen in my opinion and it will have to happen to beat Clemson. Since returning to coach the Cardinals, Petrino’s teams are 16-3 when rushing for 200 yards or more. He has been playing the Clemson QB all week on the scout team but RB Malik Williams could play a big role in the Cardinals running attack Saturday night. He had career highs of 13 rushes and 149 yards, toting the ball an average of 11.5 yards per carry against UNC. His 149 yards are the most by a running back since Brandon Radcliff did it. This kid is hopefully the answer the Cardinals running game has been looking for. WR Dez Fitzpatrick and Jaylen Smith have been clutch early on for the Cardinals. Fitzpatrick leads the squad with five third-down receptions and two touchdowns, while Smith has four first-down catches this year. These guys will need some of those clutch catches against the Clemson Secondary. The guys on the Louisville offensive line have shown improvement allowing only two sacks in the first two games and showing some great blocking late in the game last week that allowed for 74-yard gain. This weekend is going to be the ultimate measuring stick for these guys.
Looking to slow down the Louisville attack is a very good Clemson defense. It may just be the best defense in the country. Clemson allows just 118.5 yards per game, second in the nation. Clemson is also tied for first in pass defense, allowing just 40 yards per game, second in yards per play allowed at 2.06 and fifth in pass efficiency defense at a 71.46 rating. This group has not allowed a touchdown yet this season. They are led by a who’s who of pre-season defensive watch list performers and a few All-Americans. Nine Clemson players ranked among top 125 for 2017 and six of the nine are on the defensive side of the ball, including three defensive linemen. Among those standouts are DT Dexter Lawrence (9 tackles, 0.5 sacks), DT, Christian Wilkins (6 tackles, 1.5 sacks), LB Kendall Joseph (14 tackles 0.5 sacks), DE Clelin Ferrell (9 tackles,1 sack), FS Van Smith Jr (1 tackle), and CB Mark Fields (2 tackles). Leading the Clemson defense is LB Dorian O’Daniel (18 tackles 1.5 sacks), LB Kendall Joseph (14 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and DE Austin Bryant (13 tackles, 4 sacks). This is a big and nasty bunch and it is going to take a big effort against them Saturday.
Not only are some calling this game the biggest in the history of the Louisville program but they are also saying it could be the biggest college football game ever played in the state of Kentucky. I will be celebrating my 11th wedding anniversary with my beautiful wife at the game so the night really couldn’t get much bigger for me. This is a big moment folks and one that could define the Louisville program for years to come. There are some of the best recruits in the country expected to be in attendance on Saturday and a national television audience watching. There will be a lot on the line. A Cardinal win will cement their membership into the ACC giving them their 1st legitimate shot at a conference championship. A win could all but guarantee another Heisman trophy for Lamar Jackson and would put Louisville on a path to a possible College Football playoff berth. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. Winning games like this puts a college football program in a different conversation. I’m ready to have those conversations. Enjoy it folks. Go Cards!