Get ready for another wild game between Clemson and Louisville on Saturday night at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. Clemson has beaten Louisville three years in a row, but the games have all been close — 23-17 in 2014, 20-17 in 2015, and the memorable 42-36 contest last season.
Is this the year that the Cardinals score a big ACC victory and position themselves for a possible College Football Playoff bid?
In their classic matchup last season which turned into a showdown between Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson — the eventual Heisman Trophy winner and runner-up, respectively — the Tigers blew an 18-point lead, rallying for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, stopping the Cardinals a yard short on fourth down with 33 seconds left to hold on for the win.
Behind the arm and legs of Jackson, though, Louisville had the lead midway through the fourth quarter after scoring on five consecutive possessions. Jackson finished 27-of-44 passing for 295 yards and one touchdown, adding 162 more yards and two scores on 31 carries.
A huge difference between the Jackson who awed the college football world last year and the one who is again performing at a high level this fall, is that he is going through his passing progressions. In 2016, if his initial read wasn’t open, Jackson had a propensity to run more often than not. Now, as evidenced in opening wins against Purdue and North Carolina, he is being patient, going through his progressions, and taking what the defense gives him.
It’s scary to think that Jackson is improved from last year, but that has certainly been the case over the season’s first two games.
He has completed 65 percent of his passes and has back-to-back games of 375-plus yards passing and 100 yards rushing, becoming just the second quarterback in FBS history to record consecutive games of 300/100. Against North Carolina, Jackson became the first player this season to record three passing and three rushing touchdowns in the same game.
Perhaps most impressive, though, was the way in which coach Bobby Petrino game-planned to allow Jackson to almost toy with the Tar Heels defense.
North Carolina knew that Jackson was capable of beating its defense with the deep ball, and aligned its secondary to prevent that. What did Louisville do? It countered with crossing patterns underneath.
Not only were the Tar Heels unable to stop the Cardinals consistently on third down, but the high number of targets in the flats allowed Jackson to take his shot deep downfield and connect with Jaylen Smith on a 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Jackson made the pitch and catch look easy, and it was set up because Louisville had lulled the North Carolina defense to sleep with so much work underneath.
James Quick, Jamari Staples and Cole Hikutini are gone, but Smith has put up back-to-back 100-yard receiving performances and was targeted 14 times against North Carolina. He’s poised for a monster year, especially in an offense that wants to take its shots deep.
There is no question that Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables has overseen some very good performances lately, particularly in big games. Going back to the College Football Playoff games last year against Ohio State and Alabama, Venables was able to game plan effectively against J.T. Barrett and Jalen Hurts — two quarterbacks who didn’t really pose any passing threat vertically.
This past week against Auburn, we saw Jarrett Stidham — who does possess the ability to make plays with his arm — complete a long throw of 23 yards to Nate Craig-Myers, and that was basically it. It was an outstanding defensive performance from the Tigers despite playing without safety Van Smith and cornerback Marcus Edmund, the latter of whom should be back for this game. That’s how good the front seven played.
But Jackson is a different breed.
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