Lamar Jackson is already off to a strong start to become just the second player to repeat as a Heisman Trophy winner. In two games against Power Five opponents, Jackson has already totaled more than 1,000 yards of total offense and accounted for eight of Louisville’s nine touchdowns on the season (five passing, three rushing). The reigning Heisman winner looks like the best quarterback in the country already, completing 64.7 percent of his passes at 9.1 yards per attempt with no interceptions despite averaging more than 40 attempts per game.
Carving up Purdue and North Carolina have provided an impressive base for what is sure to be a record-shattering season for Jackson, but there’s something even bigger than stiff-arm statues or record book rewrites on the line Saturday: a chance to take down Clemson.
Louisville at Clemson in 2016 was one of the games of the year with Jackson and Deshaun Watson going back and forth and the Cardinals battling back from a 28-10 deficit before falling a yard short and running out of time in a 42-36 defeat. It was Louisville’s only ACC loss, and the head-to-head advantage put the Tigers in the ACC Championship Game.
Clemson just finished an exhausting defensive battle with Auburn — a victory that put arguably the nation’s top defensive line in the spotlight. On Saturday, Jackson will stare that group down snap after snap under the lights in one of the biggest home games in school history.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 16 | Time: 8 p.m. ET
Location: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium — Louisville, Kentucky
TV: ABC | Live stream: WatchESPN
Louisville: The issues in Louisville’s three-game losing streak to close the 2016 season centered around the inability to protect Jackson up front. Addressing those issues was a huge part of the conversation heading into the season, and it’s still too early to know whether that work has paid off. Even a dramatic improvement might not be enough against a Clemson defense that recorded 11 sacks against Auburn last week, seven of them coming after halftime in a second-half shutout.
Jackson has shown the ability to spin out of and away from pressure while keeping his eyes downfield to create a big play, but it’s going to take everyone from the offensive line to the coaches to the skill players in order to come up with the key plays Louisville will need in the third and fourth quarter to win what should be a close and competitive game. Clemson’s relentless attack only gets stronger as the game wears on, forcing its opponent into submission. An extra chip block, the right play call or a perfectly ran route to gain separation on a third down could be the difference in allowing Jackson to make the play to key a victory.
See which side of this game the pros at SportsLine are picking here.
Clemson: In last week’s game, the Tigers ran into an equally impressive defensive front on the other sideline. It was a great test for this young and reloaded offense so early in the year, and a great growth moment for first-year starter Kelly Bryant at quarterback. His 88-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter to take a 7-6 lead was well-executed and capped with a short touchdown run. To that point, the offense hadn’t found a rhythm or had success marching down the field.
Bryant came back after halftime and did it again with a couple explosive plays and suddenly the game was over at 14-6. The problem for that offense, which is still gelling, is that Louisville is almost certain to put up more than two field goals on Saturday night and they’ll be needed to have more than two long touchdown drives for Clemson to avoid giving up the head-to-head advantage that kept them in the ACC championship and College Football Playoff race a year ago.
This game isn’t going to come down to a field goal. These two teams are too dynamic with their quarterbacks as rushing threats close to the goal line to think it’s a field goal party. To me, you have to pick the team you think will win straight up and I’m going with Clemson. All of the focus will be on Jackson against Clemson’s defensive front, but I think the Tigers’ offense has a team speed advantage against Louisville’s defense. When the fourth quarter is winding down and going to be decided by making plays on offense and getting stops on defense, there’s only one team I trust to do both.. Pick: Clemson -3.5