All the intrigue surrounding Louisville and Clemson’s Thursday night showdown seems to revolve around the Cardinals’ murky quarterback situation. But as Louisville coach Bobby Petrino looks for answers on offense, it might be his line that’s a bigger concern.
In Louisville's Week 1 loss, Auburn routinely got pressure on Reggie Bonnafon early, so Petrino tabbed true freshman Lamar Jackson to take over at quarterback because of his ability to scramble out of the pocket. In last week’s loss to Houston, the Cougars bottled up Jackson, and Petrino was forced to swap out QBs again, going with pocket passer Kyle Bolin.
“They secured the edges and forced us to throw the ball,” Petrino said. “I felt that Kyle gave us the best chance to operate the offense.”
Petrino has three quarterbacks with three disparate skill sets to choose from, but his offensive line doesn’t offer quite so many alternatives. It simply has to play better against Clemson.
Through two games, Mississippi State is the only Power 5 team to attempt more passes under pressure than Louisville (20), and the Cardinals have completed a woeful 25 percent of those throws and averaged just 2.85 yards per attempt when facing pressure.
The ground game has offered little support either. Louisville’s running backs averaged just 4.08 yards per carry, with nearly 22 percent going for a loss or no gain.
“We need to be more physical, use our techniques and finish,” Petrino said. “That’s the biggest thing, being able to finish, get our hands in the proper position, drive our feet. And we’ve got a big challenge this week.”
This isn’t the same Clemson defensive front that dominated the ACC last season, but through two games, the Tigers' new faces on the D-line have looked impressive. And some of the young linemen have gotten critical reps late in games, which Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hopes has added some much-needed depth. Meanwhile, Carlos Watkins and Shaq Lawson have largely picked up right where their esteemed predecessors left off.
“He’s a guy that we’re counting on to have a great year,” Swinney said of Watkins, who had an interception return for a touchdown against Appalachian State last weekend. “After two games he is right where we hoped he would be.”
Still, there are unknowns for the Tigers, too.
Clemson’s first two opponents hardly offered a significant challenge for the defensive front, and while the starters handled their business, Swinney is still concerned about how much depth is behind them. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables would prefer to rotate often -- particularly if Louisville is going to scale up its tempo -- but there are problems with that plan.
While Kendall Joseph and Jalen Williams have gotten a taste of action at linebacker, Swinney notes that Clemson is still particularly thin at the position, and after starters B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware, “there’s a big drop off,” he said.
Petrino isn’t exactly feeling sorry for Clemson. He said the Tigers are still clearly the best defensive front -- particularly against the run -- Louisville will have faced, which should be a major concern for Cardinals fans.
“They’re very good technicians and they really do a good job with their scheme, their linebackers play tight and run through gaps,” Petrino said. “So we’re going to be very challenged, and we’re going to have to run the ball to win the game.”
So does that mean Jackson has the best chance to play quarterback because of his legs? Or is Bolin necessary to stretch the field and open running lanes for Brandon Radcliff and the running backs? Or, like the first two games, will Louisville mix and match as needed throughout the game?
It’s likely no quarterback will matter much if Louisville’s line can’t get the job done. And while the Cardinals have spent the first two weeks of the season finding weak spots on offense, Clemson has used two easy wins to find some answers on D.
“The game is getting slower for them,” Swinney said. “In some positions you have more experienced depth than others, but Brent knows what he’s doing, so now we just have to coach them up.”