Appearing on ESPN’s Thursday Night Football used to be a neat treat for Clemson players and coaches, yet almost certain doom for the Tigers.
But after losing nine of 10 Thursday night games 1998-2009, Clemson is 4-0 the past three years, winning at Wake Forest twice and N.C. State once and knocking off Georgia Tech at home.
Those four opponents were not ranked, and neither is Louisville. But a trip to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is undoubtedly a little more concerning for the Tigers, and the stakes are about as high as they were in 2013, when Clemson was ranked No. 3 heading into Raleigh.
Here are the keys to staying unbeaten for No. 11 Clemson (2-0) on its visit to Louisville (0-2) Thursday at 7:30 p.m.:
Not including sacks, Clemson averaged a paltry 3.1 yards on 29 carries in the 23-17 win over the Cardinals last year. That’s simply not going to do in the Tigers’ first trip to Louisville. The Tigers’ Wayne Gallman is at the point where he can demand the ball, and deservedly so. Since Deshaun Watson has yet to start and finish a game outside Memorial Stadium, he’s going to need his backfield mate to remove some of the pressure.
With center Ryan Norton out with a knee injury, the entire Tigers’ front five is essentially brand new. Tackles Mitch Hyatt and Joe Gore, guards Eric Mac Lain and Tyrone Crowder, and replacement center Jay Guillermo have looked good against lesser defensive lines, but Louisville’s front seven are tough, so it could be difficult to maintain some rhythm on offense.
On paper, Clemson should maul Louisville on offense. Head coach Bobby Petrino refuses to name a starting quarterback — acknowledging he might play more than one — but none have been particularly successful this year. The Tigers need to keep Brandon Radcliff under wraps and not let quarterback Lamar Jackson break free out of scrambles.
Clemson scored on a 72-yard punt return and had field goals of 45, 40 and 21 yards against Louisville a year ago. Not all games are the same, but the Tigers simply have to make a difference on special teams — and just as important, they can’t let Louisville do just that.
Clemson 24, Louisville 23