Lamar Jackson is on pace to shatter scoreboards and records alike in 2016. Spearheading the nation’s most electric, highest-scoring offense, the sophomore nearly picks up a first down on every play from scrimmage and has as many or more touchdowns this season (25) than all but one FBS team.
Despite leading the nation in rushing touchdowns (12), points (72), total yards (1,856) and total quarterback rating (93.7), he graded his last two performances — a 59-28 throttling of Marshall and a 63-20 annihilation of then-second-ranked Florida State — an “F” and a “D,” respectively.
One must assume a performance that would yield an average grade in Jackson’s eyes is something the world has never seen before.
Jackson’s preternatural talent for scoring on the ground and through the air has led him to be considered the best dual-threat college quarterback since Michael Vick. That holding true, last week’s performance marked the first time since Nov. 21 of last year that he failed to reach the 100-yard mark on the ground.
Clemson’s defense, mind you, hasn’t allowed a quarterback to rush for more than 100 yards in more than four years, and enters this week ranked 15th against the run (92.75 yards per contest). Just last weekend, the Tigers held Georgia Tech, a triple-option-preaching team averaging 257.3 yards per contest on the ground, to a measly 95. It was just the second time over the last six years that the Yellow Jackets were held to less than 100 yards rushing; the other instance came last year, also against Clemson.
To keep that streak going, Clemson will need to rely on its backbone: a Brent Venables-led defense and, specifically, a stout defensive front.
Venables may be the best defensive coordinator in the country, and has successfully contained a number of dual-threat quarterbacks since he arrived in Death Valley (see: Baker Mayfield in last season’s Orange Bowl, Jacoby Brissett the year before). Despite graduating a number of players to the NFL, Venables has reloaded with players like defensive tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence and defensive lineman Christian Wilkins. Lawrence, according to Pro Football Focus, ranks fifth nationally in run-defense grade, and both Wilkins and linebacker Kendall Joseph have been terrific against opposing run schemes.
However, the key matchup will be between Lawrence, a true freshman, and Louisville redshirt senior center Tobijah Hughley. Lawrence has been one of the top 10 defensive tackles in the country, and already has 10 run stops on the year. More than 80 percent of Lawrence’s snaps this year occurred in a gap that Louisville has exploited for more than 10 yards per carry, so if he can use his 6-foot-5, 340-pound frame to manhandle Hughley and win his matchup, it could be a long day for the Louisville run game.