Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables enjoys a challenge under most circumstances. He isn’t thrilled about the one his defense has this week.
The Tigers will try to slow Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville’s potent offense Saturday night at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in a rematch of last year’s game that was decided in the final seconds.
This year’s matchup is again expected to come down to the wire as Louisville is No. 5 in the nation in total offense at 614.5 yards per game, while Clemson is second in total defense at 118.5 yards per game.
Jackson leads the country in total offense, averaging 505 yards per game. That number is better than 104 teams, including Clemson.
“Some of it’s fun, and then the more you see of it, the more sick you get,” Venables said of the challenge of facing Jackson.
That doesn’t mean Clemson is conceding that it will need to win in a shootout to knock off the Cardinals.
The Tigers aren’t giving away their defensive plan for Saturday’s game, but they did outline what they will have to do well to slow Jackson.
According to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, it starts with the offense protecting the football.
“We had five turnovers in that game (last year),” Swinney said. “You keep giving that ball to that guy, you’re in trouble. That’s exactly what happened last year. We played really good the first half, but five turnovers and found a way to win.”
Clemson led 28-10 at halftime a season ago and appeared in control before the Cardinals rallied. Louisville scored 26 consecutive points to take a 36-28 lead, but Deshaun Watson and company answered as the Tigers gutted out a 42-36 victory.
Watson threw three interceptions, and Clemson fumbled twice to aid Louisville’s comeback. The Cardinals scored 20 points off turnovers.
“The key thing is you want to minimize his opportunities, and we didn’t do a good job of that last year,” Swinney said. “Hopefully, we can do a little better job of taking care of the ball and maximizing our opportunities when they present themselves.”
When Jackson does have the ball, Clemson believes the key is keeping him in the pocket.
“We’re going to try to keep him in the pocket and try to make him beat us with his arm throwing the ball,” Tigers cornerback Ryan Carter said. “We know what he can do when he tucks it and runs it.”
Of course, doing so is easier said than done.
Jackson is “wiry strong” according to several Clemson defenders and is also elusive in the open field.
“He breaks a lot of tackles, is really fast, can stop on a dime, make cuts, just do a lot of different things,” Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “He did some impressive stuff that most players can’t do, let alone quarterbacks.”
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell added the Tigers can’t depend on one defender to bring Jackson down.
“Obviously, you know what he can do with his feet, he can make any move you want, all the juke moves … You’ve really got to gang tackle a guy like that,” Ferrell said.