LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — Full of confidence and acquiring a long-absent swagger after breaking a 10-game string of futility with their first victory over a Top-25 team since 2016, Louisville's football players will try to take their resurgence to another level today.
The Cardinals (4-2, 2-1) knocked No. 19 Wake Forest from the unbeaten ranks 62-59. At the halfway point of the season, they have already doubled their win total of last year, exceeded predictions for this campaign and need just two wins in their last six games to become bowl eligible.
But now comes the biggest challenge of all — defending national champion and third-ranked Clemson (6-0, 3-0) and its 21-game winning streak.
Kickoff for the nationally-televised game (ABC, WHAS-11 in Louisville) is at noon today at Cardinal Stadium.
"We go into each game confident," linebacker Rodjay Burns said this week."We know what we are doing and have great coaches who give us a great game plan. We just have to go execute every play."
Less than a year ago, the Tigers walloped the Cards 77-16, and Clemson is the only ACC Atlantic Division team they haven't beaten since joining the league in 2014.
Nevertheless, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has warned his players not to be lulled into a false sense of security by recent history.
"I can't say enough about the job Scott (Satterfield) and his staff has done," Swinney said during his weekly press conference. "It's just incredibly obvious to watch the difference in where they are right now and what I saw last year in getting ready for Louisville.
“It's polar opposite and it's a lot of the same guys. They've got them playing with incredible belief. Effort is tremendous. They have an excellent scheme on both sides and it's just a different deal."
And Clemson is obviously a different deal than any team Louisville has played so far. The Tigers are lethal on both sides of the ball, ranking in the top 20 nationally in total offense, scoring offense, total defense and scoring defense.
They were the preseason No. 1 in both polls, but fell out of favor with some of the voters after a narrow escape at North Carolina, surviving 21-20 when the Tar Heels failed on a last-second two-point conversion.
"It's unbelievable people want to write a story about this isn't the Clemson team we're used to," Cardinals coach Scott Satterfield says. "These guys are good and they're well-coached. They've won 21 in a row and that's hard to do in college football with the parity we have.
"They have outstanding talent all over the place. Most teams you play will have a few here and there, but they seem to have better players at every position, which makes it difficult."
Clemson sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,301 yards and 11 touchdowns and has an elite receiver in 6-4 Tee Williams. Running back Travis Etienne has run for 589 yards and five TDs.
"He's a beast," Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown says of Etienne. "He's explosive as well as powerful and real shifty. To be able to stop him and stop the passing is going to be a challenge."
Then there's an offensive line that has allowed just four sacks this year.
So the biggest worry for the Cards is a defense that gave up 563 yards in a 41-39 squeaker against Boston College, then surrendered 668 yards against Wake, which was able to run 102 plays, a fatigue factor that may have contributed to the Demon Deacons' 28-point fourth quarter.
Complicating matters will be the absence of Louisville’s best defensive player, middle linebacker Dorian Etheridge, in the first half. He was ejected in the second half against Wake Forest for targeting, triggering an automatic suspension for the first 30 minutes Saturday. He will be replaced by Colgate grad transfer T.J. Holl, who has played in every game but has just three tackles.
"Yards are not a concern, points are, and we've given up a lot of points the last two games," Satterfield says. "You can have 800 yards, just keep them out of the end zone. We have to do a lot better job of that. You have to limit those big plays that get in the end zone and hold them to field goals. Touchdowns are what's so hard to overcome."
If the Cards have an edge it's in special teams, where they are second in the ACC in kickoff returns and third in punt returns.
Despite recurring injury problems, Malik Cunningham is expected to start his fifth straight game at quarterback for the Cards, with freshman Evan Conley as his backup. Conley earned ACC Quarterback and Freshman Player of the Week honors after throwing for 196 yards and two touchdowns against Wake.
Jawon Pass, the starting QB at the beginning of the season, underwent season-ending foot surgery this week. He played in only two games, completing 24-of-46 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.