Leading up to Saturday nights game between #3 Clemson and #14 Louisville, there were two main questions, can the defending national champions stop or at least contain the defending Heisman trophy winner in Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and can Clemson redshirt junior quarterback and first year starter Kelly Bryant lead Clemson to a victory on the road in a hostile environment. Well we got those answers.
By all accounts, Lamar Jackson is considered to be the best player in college football while the Clemson defense is considered one of the best, if not the best defense in college football. Last year in Death Valley, Clemson came away with a 42-36 win and even though Clemson won, their defense had no answer for Jackson. In that game (5) Clemson held a sizeable 28-10 lead at the half but then (3) Louisville came out in the 3rd quarter and outscored Clemson 16-0 to cut the lead to 28-26 entering the 4th. Clemson would then outscore Louisville 14-10 in the 4th and get a critical stop on 4th down deep with Louisville deep inside of Clemson territory to preserve a 42-36 win for the eventual national champions. But the story that carried over to this year was Lamar Jackson. The eventual Heisman winner lit Clemson up for 457 total yards and 3 TD, with 162 yards and 2 TD’s coming on the ground. Would the 2017 Clemson defense be able to keep Jackson in check? You bet they would as (3) Clemson went on the road and dominated (14) Louisville to a score of 47-21.
Lets get to what we learned:
1. This Clemson defense is LEGIT
Coming off of a game in which they held then #14 Auburn to only 6 points, there were still questions on if this defense could contain Lamar Jackson enough to win this game. Naturally nobody expected Clemson to be able to shut Jackson down so it was all about trying to slow him down. What ensued would be one of the more impressive defensive performances I can remember. From the very beginning you could tell that Jackson was off. He missed three throws in the first two drives that would have led to Louisville first downs, instead they ended up being 3 and outs. That was just the beginning of a night full of struggles presented by a ferocious and hungry defense. You could tell just how hungry Clemson was to shut down Jackson. They wanted to prove that they are the best defense in the country and even the reigning Heisman winner wouldn’t be successful against them. They did this by constantly getting pressure on Jackson. Last year the biggest downfall for Clemson was allowing Jackson to maneuver around in the pocket and break containment and gash them with his legs. This year they couldn’t have done a better job. Time and time again when Clemson would get pressure and Jackson would look to escape, he went nowhere. Make no mistake about it, Clemson’s defensive line is the best in the country and it showed Saturday night. They got to Jackson for 4 sacks and held the Louisville quarterback to only 64 yards rushing on 17 attempts for a measly average of 3.8 yards per carry. Keep in mind that Jackson was averaging of 500 total yards per game through the first two games of the season, albeit against Purdue and North Carolina. Just as impressive for Clemson though was their coverage down the field with the secondary and underneath with the linebackers. In years past one of the Clemson defense’s biggest downfalls has been the lack of coverage provided by it’s linebackers. This year is a different story, in fact Clemson LB Dorian O’Daniel had a 44 yard interception return for a TD that essentially put the game on ice for Clemson. As for that secondary, all they did was hold Jackson to 11-24 for 113 yards until deep in the second half when Clemson was already up 3 scores and had started pulling starters. For a guy coming off of a Heisman and someone who was averaging 500 total yards per game through 2 games of 2017, holding him to only 177 yards with your starters in nothing short of incredible. At the end of the day Jackson ended up with 317 yards passing on 21-42, but 140 of those passing yards was against Clemson’s 2nd, 3rd, and even some 4th team guys on defense. Heck, to tell you how dominant Clemson was, they had a defense full of walk-ons and freshman on the last drive and made a goal line stand to end the game. This capped a defensive performance for the ages and it was all thanks to Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables game plan and the execution put forth by his players. This Clemson defense is LEGIT!!!
2. Clemson is just fine with Kelly Bryant at QB
For all of the hype surrounding Lamar Jackson, the opposite could be said for Kelly Bryant. He was sensational the opening week against Kent State and then against (14) Auburn in Death Valley where he threw for 181 yards and rushed for 59 yards and 2 TD’s with no turnovers against an outstanding Auburn defense to lead Clemson to a victory over the Tigers. However, that didn’t stop the questions from coming about whether or not he could win on the road and lead Clemson back to a potential playoff spot. Once again he shined in the spotlight. From the onset Bryant was as poised as one could possibly be. On the opening drive of the night for the Clemson offense, Bryant led the Tigers on a 10 play 79 yard drive that was capped off by his own 8 yard TD run. From then on it was smooth sailing for the most part. Bryant finished the night going 22-32 passing for 316 yards and a long 79 yard TD pass to Ray-Ray McCloud and added 26 yards and 2 TD’s on the ground. All of this while not even playing on Clemson’s final 3 possessions. Then there is this, over his last 2 games Kelly Bryant is 12-16 on third down, if that’s not the definition of a winner then I don’t know what is. The guy just continues to dazzle in replacing a once in a generation type player in QB Deshaun Watson. Going forward if there is one thing for Bryant to work on, it is getting rid of the ball. He ended up being sacked 4 times and really could have limited that to one. On 2 of the sacks he held the ball entirely too long while he was going through his progressions in which both cases he could’ve easily escaped the pocket and at least throw the ball away. On the other he failed to sense the blind side rusher. Lets not forget that even as great as Bryant has been, that this was only his 3rd career college start. The stuff I mentioned he should work on going forward will all come with experience.
3. Clemson is loaded at running back
Going into the season Clemson was tasked with replacing one of the most productive running backs in college football in 2015 and 2016 in RB Wayne Gallman. They returned RB’s CJ Fuller, Adam Choice, and Tavien Feaster and they brought in 4 star true freshman Travis Etienne from Louisiana. Dabo Swinney called it a committee in saying they will go with the hot hand. So far it has been the veteran CJ Fuller that has gotten all 3 starts, but Saturday night we got a glimpse at just how loaded Clemson is at the position. Fuller, Choice, Feaster, and Etienne combined to rush for 271 yards and 2 TD’s. That’s an absurd number considering Feaster is a sophomore and Etienne is a true freshman. Those 2 were clearly the head of the class. Feaster constantly showed his physical style of running by bowling over people to the tune of 92 yards on just 10 carries, most of which were straight up the gut. Numerous times he was hit at or near the line of scrimmage and would bounce off for extra yards. Late in the 3rd quarter when the score was 26-7, Feaster practically took over and flat-out dominated the ground to help Clemson ice the game. Then came Travis Etienne. Etienne entered at a disadvantage in the 4th quarter in that Clemson had already pulled its offensive starters and Louisville still had its first team defense on the field. That however didn’t slow Etienne down. On his first carry Etienne got a decent gain of 4 yards. The second carry however, he took the handoff and went left, got the edge, ran over one defender, through another, and too it 81 yards to the house for a TD. That showed the depth that Clemson has. A true FR running back with a backup offensive line, ran over and through the first team defense of the #14 team in the country, for an 81 yard TD. Etienne finished with 6 carries for 98 yards and the TD. When your so called 4th string RB rushes for 98 yards its safe to say you had a good night.
In conclusion its pretty simple what we learned from Clemson dominating Louisville on the road nonetheless, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Despite losing 5 skill position starters on offense, the leader of the defense in MLB Ben Boulware, a starting DT, their top safety, and their top corner, this Clemson team may in fact be better than the 2016 National Championship team. How you say? The defense is clearly better in large based on the fact that their linebackers are remarkably better in coverage, a night and day difference really. Offensively they are more efficient. Last years team was very turnover prone and averaged almost 2 turnovers a game (1.9 to be exact) and so far through 3 games this year, Clemson has turned the ball over just twice. That dominant defense plus an efficient offense that doesn’t turn the ball over is a recipe for a championship. Only time will tell if this team can achieve a ACC Championship and ultimately a National Championship but with 2 Top 15 wins in 3 games, I’d say they’re off to a great start.