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Louisville-Clemson: Expect Another Barnburner

By Jim Johnson
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Last year, in Death Valley, Clemson and Louisville provided one of the most thrilling contests of the season, and this week, as they square off again, there is nary a more compelling matchup on the docket.

Last year, in Death Valley, Clemson and Louisville provided one of the most thrilling contests of the season, and this week, as they square off again, there is nary a more compelling matchup on the docket.

Both the Tigers and Cardinals are coming off of games for the record books, as well, if the pairing wasn’t already tantalizing enough (and it was).

Clemson, versus Auburn, tallied 11 sacks on Jarrett Stidham, who prior to the game had only been sacked 12 times in his career, falling just one shy of the school record for a single game. In the second half, Auburn finished with 15 yards of offense, due in large part to having -25 rushing yards.

Mere hours earlier, on Saturday, Lamar Jackson became the second player in FBS history to post consecutive lines of at least 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards. Jackson’s 525 yards of offense and six touchdowns, without a turnover, made him the second player in ACC history to have at least 500 total yards, six scores, and no turnovers in a road game. This, his 15th career 100-yard rushing game, also tied Walter Peacock’s Louisville record.

While Clemson is largely favored in this game, the spread currently sits at -3 and SB Nation's Bill Connelly’s fantastic S&P+ metric gives them a 58% win probability, all signs point to another thriller, with whoever comes out on top only doing so by the slimmest of margins.

After Deshaun Watson’s departure, Clemson has seen an expected drop in its offensive efficiency, from 6th in S&P+ (a combined, opponent adjusted measure of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, drive finishing, and turnovers) to 31st, with Kelly Bryant behind center.

Still, the Tigers are a solid 36th in the country in passing success rate (achieving 50% of necessary yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, and 100% on third and fourth down). However, they are failing to generate big plays, averaging 1.24 equivalent points per successful pass play (henceforth referred to as IsoPPP), which is 96th overall.

Louisville’s pass defense success rate (limiting teams from the aforementioned necessary yardage per play) of 46.8% (110th in FBS), coupled with a 1.24 pass defense IsoPPP (45th in FBS) indicates a decision to limit big plays, albeit at the expense of dink-and-dunk yards.

Patience is a virtue, and a necessity for Clemson’s passing offense, on Saturday. Look for Hunter Renfrow, currently leading the team with a 91.7% catch rate and 83.3% success rate on 12 targets, to have another big day as he should be able to continue to find soft spots in the shallow part of the defense, although for shorter gains -- he’s averaging 6.5 yards per target. Ray-Ray McCloud could be a major X-Factor, though, with his 81.8% catch rate and 72.7% success rate, coupled with a 9.6 yards per target average.

Unfortunately for Deon Cain, the standout deep threat, this could be a slow day as, despite his 13.9 yards per target, his 57.1% catch rate will struggle to improve against Louisville’s off coverage.

Even so, with Renfrow and McCloud getting 36.5% of the targets, to date, it shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for Bryant.

Clemson’s rushing attack will shape up pretty similarly. While its success rate is very average, Louisville’s run defense success rate is abysmal, and yet still 12th in rush defense IsoPPP. So, expect Clemson to, again, be able to work more methodically as the Cardinals try to limit explosiveness.

Bryant should continue to be featured as the primary ball carrier, but perhaps Tavien Feaster should see some more touches, as he has picked up at least five yards on just 1.1% fewer carries than C.J. Fuller, but averages seven more yards per carry, once he gets to the second level.

Clemson’s ground game gives it a slight edge over Louisville's run defense, whereas its passing attack projects largely as a wash against the Cardinals. That’s not the matchup, people are turning in for, though. The anticipation around this battle, centers around Lamar Jackson vs. Brent Venables’ defense.

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has, remarkably, if unsurprisingly, improved upon his 2016 passing numbers, at least through the first two games of 2017. His drop-adjusted completion percentage is up to 72.8%, from 69.5% in 2016, and he is absolutely dominating over the middle, completing 73.4% of his passes between the numbers and past the line of scrimmage for 590 yards and all five of his touchdowns.

He still needs to improve on throws to the sideline, but those are much less prevalent in Bobby Petrino’s offense, which utilizes more crossing route concepts.

(quick sidebar: Lamar Jackson is, at worst, one of the two best quarterback prospects in this class of NFL Draft-eligible players, and might be number one. That is not an opinion, but a fact, like how it’s a fact that he throws the best deep ball in college football. Don’t be fooled by the people on Twitter that don’t know what they’re talking about. Thank you.)

With the best college football player in the game leading the way, Louisville’s pass offense is in the top 20 with a 52.9% success rate, but Clemson’s pass defense success rate of 17.1% and IsoPPP of .71 are both in the top four, nationally. Bear in mind, Clemson has played two heavily run-oriented offenses, in Auburn and Kent State, but suffice it to say the front seven is as good as advertised.

Granted, as good as that defensive line is, it’s hard to tell how much of a deficiency in the secondary it is making up for. The 3.5% DB havoc rate (116th in FBS) would indicate a fairly substantial one, but it’s hard to know too much given the small sample size. Cornerback Mark Fields stood out against Auburn, and Ryan Carter has been solid, in spite of his physical limitations, but if given time, it seems like Clemson’s secondary could be picked on. Then again, as long as Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins are healthy, that’s about a 650 pound ‘if’.

Even more frighteningly, eight of the eleven sacks against Auburn came on standard pass rushes (four or fewer rushers), affording Clemson the great, and necessary, luxury of being able to drop linebackers into coverage without fear of not being able to create pressure. That, combined with the fact that Clemson has the most sacks in FBS since 2016, and Lamar Jackson has been sacked more times than anyone else, over that same timespan, does not bode well for the home team.

Of course, it’s worth noting that, through two games, Louisville’s protection has been markedly improved. Their allowed sack rate on standard downs has gone from 10.4% to 1.8%, and from 7.9% to 3.2% on passing downs. Neither UNC nor Purdue has anything resembling Clemson’s defensive line, but the Cardinals’ offensive line progress is significant, ahead of the toughest matchup it will see this year.

It’s no easy task predicting Jackson’s performance against Clemson. As previously stated, the Tiger’s secondary has some question marks and Jackson posted a passer rating of 118.8 on throws of 20 or more yards downfield, against North Carolina. He’s also the top returning quarterback in the country, with a clean pocket, throwing for 26 touchdowns with a 114.8 passer rating in 2016, when not pressured. However, against Purdue for example, his passer rating fell sharply, when under duress, to 57.5.

Jackson’s athleticism allows him to improvise and extend plays to an extent not seen from any other player in college football, right now, and maybe ever. If he can make those deep throws on the run, or if the offensive line steps up in the biggest way, Louisville could shred Clemson’s defensive backfield. If Clemson’s front four is able to wreak havoc as they have so far this year -- they have 35.3% standard down and 27.8% passing down sack rates, which is unsustainable but still indicative of how much better they are at getting to the quarterback than anyone else -- then the onus will be placed back on Louisville to make some serious offensive adjustments, which may not be enough, regardless.

Ultimately, a little bit of all the above will likely be the reality, meaning it could come down to Jackson’s receiving corps to be the difference makers.

Wideout Jaylen Smith has been revelatory in 2016. Jackson’s passer rating when targeting Smith was 131.5, against UNC, and the junior finished with 183 yards and a touchdown. Freshman Dez Fitzpatrick has also emerged, averaging 15.7 yards per target with a 72.7% success rate, and three scores of his own.

All things considered, Clemson’s pass defense, specifically the pass rush, holds the benefit of the doubt until Louisville’s offensive line proves otherwise, but the one facet of this game where Lousiville may be able to establish a clear advantage is running the football.

While Kelly Bryant, Clemson’s quarterback and primary ball carrier, takes less than a third of his offense’s carries, Lamar Jackson takes just under 52% of Louisville’s. As such, he is the most important player on 77% of his team’s plays, either as the passer or rusher. Given that he averaged 8.4 yards per carry on designed runs and 7.5 yards per carry on scrambles against North Carolina, and is averaging over 8 yards per play, on the season, that’s probably how it should be. However, that is also a fairly taxing physical burden to place on one man. With that in mind, and in light of Jeremy Smith’s season ending injury, it may be time to allow senior Malik Williams to blossom into a larger role. He has 149 yards on just 13 carries, this season, and has gained at least five yards on 71% of his touches, including his four receptions.

For all the apparent advantages Clemson’s pass rush holds over Louisville's offensive line, when it comes to run defense, the metrics are mostly even. Clemson has done a good job, so far in 2017, of mitigating explosive rushing plays, but they haven’t yet seen the likes of Jackson, and while Louisville’s offensive line and Clemson’s defensive line are both 21st in the nation in opportunity rate, Louisville’s rushing success rate is much better than Clemson’s rush defense success rate.

Looking across the board at the fascinating matchups within the matchup, neither team holds any glaring advantages against the other.

Clemson’s pass offense is still finding its footing in the wake of Watson’s departure. Louisville’s mentality against the pass will allow for some quick hitting short gains, but limits plays over the top. That projects, more or less, as a wash. The Tigers should be able to run the ball effectively, but, again, struggle to rip off big plays.

Louisville may be hard pressed to move the ball through the air if Jackson is running for his life, but with even a little time, he could absolutely ruin the backend of Clemson’s defense. Given Malik Williams’ emergence, plus Jackson, obviously, the Cardinals have a slight advantage of their own in the ground game.

One could argue that Clemson’s defensive line, relative to Louisville’s offensive line, is the biggest advantage, and it would not be surprising at all should that come to fruition, but even that doesn’t seem fair to say at this point. For as good as the Tigers’ pass rush is, and it’s incredible, the Cardinals offensive front has made great strides in pass protection, and, last year, was statistically the second best run blocking unit in the country.

And, for what it’s worth, through two games, the numbers say that Louisville’s front seven has been better than Clemson’s offensive line. In fact, led by proven seniors Stacy Thomas and Trevon Young, on top of sophomore Jon Greenard, who has been sensational so far, Louisville’s linebacking corps has the number two havoc rate in the country.

For all the hype around Lamar Jackson vs. Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, when it’s all said and done, this matchup will probably be decided by the ‘other guys’. Jackson, and the Clemson tackles will each get theirs, to be sure. However, it’s the Hunter Renfrow's and Jaylen Smith’s and Ray-Ray McCloud’s and Dez Fitzpatrick’s and Tavien Feaster’s and Malik Williams’ versus their defensive counterparts that will decide the outcome of this contest.

With neither team holding any significant statistical advantage over the other, this promises to be near as entertaining, if not more so, than last year’s wild one at Clemson. The defending national champions, assuredly, and deservedly will be favored, and are more well rounded -- a better team, top to bottom.

That said, as long as Louisville trots out the best college football player in the country at the sport’s most important position, there’s not a game it can’t win.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP