The Clemson offense is coming off one of their best performances of the season against Florida State. They did not ‘explode’ with scores or yards, but they cut way back on the boneheaded mistakes that have been plaguing them all season. The defense, on the other hand, had one of their worst outings of the year against the Seminoles. They were the side plagued with boneheaded mistakes, with multiple offsides penalties and tackling goofs.
What this means is we still don’t know exactly to expect from the Tigers as they head into their next road game at Louisville. One bit of good news is that Kobe Pace returns to the running back room after an absence due to COVID protocols. The bad news is that Phil Mafah is slightly banged up and will likely be a gametime decision. Best case scenario for Clemson is that they can get the job done with Pace and Will Shipley (not to mention Darien Rencher is available too) which allows Mafah more time to recover.
Injuries are hitting the Tigers hard on the offensive line too, particularly at the guard position. Bockhorst is already gone for the season, and Putnam is struggling with his foot injury too. Trotter is also banged up, which means that Clemson’s starting interior will be Rayburn at center, with Tate and Tchio on either side. That is a young interior group, but all three of those men have improved as the season has progressed. Coach Swinney publicly called on Tchio to take the next step in his development from being a guy with promise to a player the team can count on for every snap.
The unit that made the biggest step forward in the FSU game was the wide receivers, who cut way back on the unexplainable drops on Saturday. We have said all year long that it is hard for DJU to improve his overall play if the guys around him aren’t doing their part. It isn’t a surprise to anyone that as soon as the receivers started holding onto the ball, DJU’s performance improved. DJ arguably had his best touchdown pass of the season to Davis Allen (his pass to Ross in the NC State game was pretty good too, but I defer to the Allen pass), and he spread the ball around to multiple receivers, tight ends and running backs.
A decrease in the mistakes made around DJ also allows us to get a more realistic feel for exactly where he stands. We can see that DJ doesn’t really run through progressions right now – he is staring down his primary receiver option. Not only does this mean that his eyes are communicating to the defense where he wants to throw the ball, but if that first option isn’t open, he isn’t likely to find another passing option, even if it is a checkdown or a receiver is wide open elsewhere. His only options at this point are to scramble (and possibly throw the ball away), throw a pass into a bad situation or take a sack. We also see how often DJ does make a bad pass – his accuracy is still something that needs to improve if the Tigers are to contend for division & conference championships next season. As for now, DJU needs to work on maintaining his level of play and not regressing or having an off day, which could be disastrous for the Tigers.
The defense has seen their share of injuries too, but they look to be bouncing back as best they can. Tyler Davis has returned up front, but it doesn’t sound like he is 100%. Clemson is still employing a healthy rotation including Ruk, Williams and Page. While Foster will miss the rest of the season, XT, Murphy & KJ are still wreaking havoc from the ends. Trenton Simpson had a great game against the Seminoles, and Skalski & Spector had their usual solid game. In the backfield, Mario Goodrich is getting praise for his play right now. Alongside Booth at corner, the starters are solid. The question continues to be depth in the backfield. I am not sure about Fred Davis’s availability right now. I don’t see him listed with an injury, so I suppose he may be back Saturday, which would be a positive from a football perspective. With Charleston’s entry into the portal, Phillips has been the man asked to step up beside Turner & Mukuba. If there is one place the Tigers need to avoid further attrition, it is the defensive backfield (knocks on wood). Lastly, the whole unit must shake off that funk that they had last week with the mistakes. With FSU’s changeup on their snap count having success, you can be sure Louisville noticed it and will test Clemson’s composure, especially in the Cardinal’s home stadium. Keep your eyes on the ball, move on the snap. Oh, and wrap up on your tackles until you hear a whistle (looking at you Sheridan)!
Lastly, hopefully BT Potter can shake off whatever stink got on him in the second quarter of the FSU game and get back to his old self. Otherwise, the most interesting play on special teams right now is the punt return. I am glad Will Brown is getting his chance to see the field and contribute. I dare say he had a couple impressive returns last weekend. When we receive a punt, I don’t know if I should brace for a muff or get excited for Brown to shock the world. I kind of close my eyes a little.
I can’t say I had a high opinion of Louisville coming into this season, so a 4-4 record impresses me. They have beaten some decent teams this season, and pushed others, like Wake Forest, to the very end of the game. That being said, I don’t think the Cardinals roster has improved significantly since Satterfield’s first season at Louisville. His first recruiting class was hurt by the timing of his hire, which didn’t allow him to do much recruiting, and a poor 2020 didn’t help either. Satterfield and his staff have proven that they can get the best out of their squad, so they are more than capable of beating Clemson if the Tigers are not at their best.
Night game people! I know some of you hate having to wait all day, but the night games are my favorite. Enjoy!