It was hard to find a more popular discussion point around college football during September than Louisville and quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The sophomore is averaging 332.5 passing yards per game, the second-best mark in the ACC, and has 13 touchdowns. He also has 526 rushing yards, an 8.62 yards-per-carry average, and 12 more scores on the ground, giving him an incredible total of 25 total touchdowns through four games.
Without a doubt, Jackson is for real, but if Louisville is going to stay on top of the polls and become the new favorite to win the ACC, its defense will need to reach another level — even higher than it did against Florida State.
Two weeks ago, the Cardinals impressively dismantled the Seminoles, but the game was at home, and don’t forget, it was the first true road test of FSU freshman quarterback Deondre Francois’ career.
Louisville will have neither of those advantages Saturday night against Clemson.
Tiger quarterback Deshaun Watson isn’t necessarily living up to his lofty expectations as a Heisman Trophy favorite, but he’s still one of the best signal callers in the country. In four games, he has completed 60 percent of his passes, which is a higher mark than Jackson’s, for 996 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. The biggest surprise, though, is he has only 120 rushing yards and no scores on the ground.
Last season, Watson accumulated over 4,100 passing yards, more than 1,100 rushing yards and 47 total touchdowns. The stats might have been below his standards in September, but Watson still has the talent to explode at any time, and his championship experience from last season will serve him well in this big contest.
Quarterback is hardly the only position where Clemson has a leg up on the Florida State offense. The Tigers had five other offensive players on the preseason All-ACC team this summer, including wide receiver Artavis Scott Jr. and tight end Jordan Leggett. The other three are offensive linemen, tackle Mitch Hyatt, guard Tyrone Crowder Jr. and Jay Guillermo.
Nothing against Florida State — a fine football team — but the Seminoles can’t match these guys’ combination of talent and experience. This group of Clemson players has won 18 straight regular season games. Moreover, wide receiver Mike Williams is back and leads the team with 303 receiving yards.
Louisville held Florida State to just 284 offensive yards, and that includes yardage the Seminoles gained in garbage time. Florida State averaged only 4.7 yards per pass, turned it over twice and was 2-for-13 on third downs. Four different Cardinal defenders registered a sack.
It was a dominant performance, but Clemson’s offense is a whole other animal for Louisville’s defense to control, and this time, the Cardinals can’t feed off home-crowd adrenaline.
The key to Louisville’s defense imposing its will upon another big-name ACC Atlantic opponent will be its pass rush. Louisville has 34 tackles for loss and 15 sacks in just four games. Beating that experienced Clemson offensive line, containing the running attack and forcing Watson to carry the load, something he hasn’t been comfortable doing this season (not in September, at any rate), is the key to another stellar performance for the Louisville defense.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the headline-generating confrontation between Lamar Jackson and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. That’s the collision which will gain most of the attention in Cardinals-Tigers. Yet, the Deshaun Watson-Todd Grantham chess match might become the meeting of the minds which matters more.
Louisville hung 63 on Florida State, but the Cardinals’ ability to keep the Seminoles’ offense under wraps enabled that game to become a blowout. If Grantham’s group can similarly contain Watson, Jackson won’t have to be spectacular in order to win.
On the road, at night, in a game with division, conference, Heisman Trophy, and College Football Playoff implications, that margin for error is something the Cardinals will likely need.