By Russ Brown
Even though its season will be only three games and 13 days old, the moment of truth has arrived for the sagging University of Louisville football team, and the moment will be wearing orange and purple.
When the Cardinals (0-2) host No. 11(AP)/9(coaches) Clemson (2-0), they’ll be trying to get up off the mat and turn their season around after a hugely disappointing start.
Or as senior linebacker James Burgess, one of the team’s leaders, has so bluntly put it: whether they will “lay down or stand up.”
The nationally-televised ACC opener Thursday (7:30 p.m., ESPN) in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium not only represents UofL’s strongest home opponent, but also one of only two more opportunities to make some noise on the national scene, the other being its visit to No. 9/6 Florida State on Oct. 17.
Most of all, though, it’s a chance to earn some redemption and erase the sour taste from last Saturday’s 34-31 upset loss to visiting Houston. The Cards say they’ll be riled up and ready to avenge last year’s 23-17 loss to Clemson in Death Valley.
Win and the young season takes on an entirely new look. Lose and start 0-3 for the first time in 31 years, and suddenly the goal of a sixth straight bowl appearance will be in serious jeopardy.
“We’ve got a chip on our shoulders,” Burgess says. “We have a lot to prove, starting out 0-2. We didn’t expect to lose any games this year.”
“We feel pretty furious because we feel we’re better than what you guys have seen right about now,” sophomore safety Chucky Williams told reporters after the Houston game. “Seeing we’re the underdog gives us a big chip on our shoulder to go out there and grind and show what we’re supposed to do and what we can do.”
Louisville is, indeed the underdog. The Vegas line started out as a pick ‘em game, but Clemson, the preseason ACC choice and an Atlantic Division rival of the Cards, quickly became a six-point favorite.
“We’re going to find out what we’re made of,” junior linebacker and leading tackler Keith Kelsey says. “It’s going to show how tough we are as a team and our maturity level.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has warned his players about assuming a false sense of security from Louisville’s record, which also includes a competitive 31-24 loss to then-No. 6 Auburn in Atlanta.
“They’re 0-2, but I wouldn’t put too much into that,” Swinney says. “This is a good team that I have no doubt will be in a bowl at the end of the year. They have the same chance we have to compete and win the division. This is a great matchup and it will be an electric atmosphere up there.
“There will be a lot of competitive plays that will have to be made by somebody. They will challenge us by far more than anyone we’ve seen. I’m excited to see us play. I want to see us compete for four quarters in a hostile environment. How do we handle adversity in the game? We don’t have any illusions going in that this won’t be a 60-minute, all-in slugfest.”
As Swinney implied, this will be the first serious test for Clemson, which has beaten FCS opponent Wofford (49-10) and new FBS member Appalachian State (41-10). Those games were so non-competitive that Swinney was able to go deep into his bench, using a total of 27 newcomers, including 13 true freshman, the most for Clemson since 1943.
Starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, who UofL knocked out of last year’s game early, has thrown for 442 yards and five touchdowns despite playing only one series in the third quarter in each game before going to the sideline.
In what could be a bad sign for Louisville’s defense, Watson — a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate — is a mobile quarterback in the mold of Houston’s Greg Ward Jr., who torched the Cards for 334 yards (236 passing, 98 rushing).
Keeping Watson in the pocket instead of letting him roam like they did Ward will be a top priority for the Cards.
Clemson was No. 2 in the nation in pass defense last year and, although they’ve played low-level competition, the Tigers are fourth this season, yielding just 92.5 yards per game. They’re 18th in total defense (255 ypg).
On the upside for Louisville, Clemson does still have some unknown quantities at this point, with rebuilt lines and question marks at kicker and punter.
“They’ve shown up and taken care of business,” Swinney says. “They’ve come ready to play. Just look around college football. It’s hard to win. I have a great expectation for these guys for getting themselves ready and for buying in. If they will continue to go about their business and continue to buy into how we prepare, we’ve got a chance to develop into a good football team.”
UofL coach Bobby Petrino, meanwhile, hopes his team can eliminate its penchant for self-destruction.
Going into the game, UofL’s statistics on both sides of the ball are ugly. The Cards have lost six turnovers and allowed 17 points off them, both numbers tied for the most by a Power 5 program. Combined, their three quarterbacks rank last in the ACC in pass efficiency, touchdowns, completion percentage and yards per attempt.
Their defense is also at or near the bottom in several important categories.
Petrino hasn’t named a starting quarterback, but it would be mildly surprising if Lexington native Kyle Bolin doesn’t get the nod after his impressive performance in relief of Lamar Jackson against Houston.
“What we’re trying to figure out is how to win a game because right now what we’ve done is found ways to lose the game,” Petrino says. “And the first thing you have to do is not beat yourself, and we’ve found ways to turn the ball over, give the other team touchdowns, whether it’s pick up a fumble and run it for a touchdown or run a (100-yard) kickoff back for a touchdown.
“So those are the things we’re really working on learning. I do think before it’s over with we’re going to be a very good football team. We’re very, very young and inexperienced on offense and we’re not playing as well on defense as we expect to.”
Petrino is an impressive 11-3 after losses during this two UofL tenures, but has never faced a team of Clemson’s caliber after a defeat.
“We’re playing a real good team,” Petrino says. “Their defense doesn’t look like they’ve missed a beat and they’ve got a quarterback who has completed 70 percent of his passes and can run. So we’ve got a real challenge, but I think our kids are looking forward to it, and I know the coaches are.
“This is a big game for us. I think the atmosphere will be great. You get excited for that. We need to stay focused. Hopefully, the two games we’ve played and the competition we’ve played will help us and we’ll see improvement from last Saturday to this Thursday.”
If not, it’s going to be another long night for the Cards in PJCS.
QUOTABLE–Looking ahead during ACC media day in July, senior defensive end Sheldon Rankins told TigerNet.com what Clemson should be prepared for from the crowd in PJCS.
“They can expect some drunk, crazy fans,” Rankins said. “It’s going to happen. Fans will be talking trash and it will be loud. When third down comes, it’s gonna be loud. Just like it was at Clemson. I expect equal noise.”