No. 2 Clemson asserts dominance on the ground in blowout victory over Louisville

The most turbulent week of No. 2 Clemson’s season to this point was when coach Dabo Swinney decided to name freshman Trevor Lawrence the starting quarterback. Senior returning starter Kelly Bryant then announced his intentions to transfer, and that same weekend, Lawrence was knocked out of the game early against Syracuse. There, in a fierce battle with a Syracuse team that we would later learn to be one of the best in the ACC, Swinney told his coaches that they were to get old school. Clemson’s commitment to a physical run game might have started out of necessity, but now it’s paying off as the Tigers have rounded into one of the best rushing teams in the country. 

Trevor Lawrence threw just 12 passes for a total of 59 yards in Clemson’s 77-16 win against Louisville. He had two touchdowns and an interception but, outside of a handful of plays, took a backseat to the Tigers’ deep rotation of talented backs. The offensive line was out and moving early, pushing Louisville defenders around and freeing up gaps for Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster to get to the second level and make explosive plays. Etienne totaled 153 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, while Feaster racked up 101 yards and two touchdowns on six touches. By the end of the rout, 14 different players recorded rushing attempts for a team total of 492 yards at 13.3 yards per carry with five touchdowns. 

It was also another game where Clemson went to its 665-pound “Fridge” package in the goal-line scenario, featuring 350-pound defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence as the fullback and 315-pound defensive tackle Christian Wilkins as the halfback. Last week, Wilkins recorded a touchdown run in a blowout win against NC State, and this week it was Lawrence powering his way across the goal line on a fullback dive. 

Clemson is still making mistakes, it’s just that they’re masked to most of us because of the team’s success. Swinney has reached that level we usually only see occupied by Nick Saban — adversity is less about the opponent and more about focus and execution in a blowout win. The coachable moments are limited to preaching consistency and establishing habits that can make up the thin margins in the College Football Playoff. 

Clemson knows what it takes to win a national championship in this College Football Playoff era. The Tigers have won and lost in the semifinals and finals, experiencing all sides of the modern postseason. That allows Clemson’s coaches to have some perspective as the hysteria of the regular season’s final month unfolds. 

Three more things to know about the game: 

1. Louisville’s freefall from the top: This is rock bottom for Bobby Petrino and the 2018 Cardinals. Two years ago, Louisville came into Death Valley and finished a few yards shy of knocking off the eventual national champions. In the time since Marcus Edmonds forced Lamar Jackson out of bounds short of the line to gain on fourth time, the Cardinals have fallen from the top of the ACC to the very bottom. Now 0-6 in conference play after the loss, Louisville will enter its final two ACC games against Syracuse and NC State as significant underdogs with odds favoring a 2-10 finish. But beyond the embarrassment of falling from co-division champs to winless in conference play is the distance between these two programs, measured most plainly by one of the most lopsided scores we’ll see anywhere in the country this week. 

2. Patience with Trevor Lawrence: The decision to name Lawrence the starting quarterback was so that Clemson would be able to separate itself from the best teams in the country at the end of the year in the playoff. Outside of a few picture-perfect deep passes, Lawrence has looked the part of a freshman still settling in as the new starter under center. The coaches haven’t put a lot on his plate, and he’s mostly done well executing the offense in red zone situations. 

If you pay close attention to the offense when Clemson gets into scoring position, you can see some of the ways that the Tigers are starting to shift this offense towards Lawrence’s skill set. The run-pass option and play-action passes have always been a big part of Clemson’s offense, but Lawrence’s ability to make great throws on the run have added rollout elements to that RPO scheme. You take Lawrence’s ability to run and throw and add the elite athleticism of Clemson’s skill players, and suddenly this offense is looking like it could go blow-for-blow with Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama, should the two teams meet again in the playoffs.   

3. Boston College will put Clemson to the test: The next game might be the most-likely loss left on the schedule for Clemson. Boston College separated itself as one of the top teams in the ACC with its dominant win against Miami earlier this year. When Clemson comes to town, there will be belief in that locker room that the Eagles can pull off another huge home upset. Boston College has an aggressive defensive front that will look to rattle Lawrence, so it will be crucial for that physical ground game to show up again and anchor the Tigers’ offensive efforts. 

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