Lamar Jackson's day last Saturday could not have been more different than Jarrett Stidham's. Jackson nevertheless knows Stidham's pain all too well.
In Auburn's loss at Clemson, Stidham took 11 sacks thanks to relentless pressure from the Clemson defensive front. According to Sports-Reference, it was only the 10th time since 2000 that one team recorded at least 11 sacks in a game. The most recent occurrence before then? The 11 that Jackson took at the hands of Houston in a 36-10 loss last November.
Hours before Stidham was overwhelmed by Clemson, finishing with 37 yards of total offense, Jackson humiliated the North Carolina defense with 525 yards of total offense, looking exactly like the Jackson we saw at the beginning of last season before Louisville unraveled at Houston. The Tar Heels sacked Jackson only twice, and he finished with 393 passing yards, 132 rushing yards and six total touchdowns, essentially the opposite of Stidham's performance that night.
Jackson, however, is the next quarterback tasked with dealing with the wrath of the Clemson defense, in a prime-time showdown at Louisville this Saturday that will likely have ACC title, College Football Playoff, Heisman Trophy and even NFL Draft implications. A year ago in Death Valley, Jackson completed 27 of 44 passes for 295 yards, one TD and one INT and rushed 31 times for 162 yards and two TDs in a 42-36 loss to Clemson. Clemson's defense sacked him five times, but despite the loss, he did nothing to hurt his Heisman campaign, racking up 457 yards of total offense -- more than any other entire team had against the Tigers' defense all year except one. Louisville's offensive line was not a strength at that point, but the unit's collapse wouldn't come until later, when the Cardinals lost their final three games, including horrific offensive outings against Houston and LSU in which Jackson received little protection.
Defenses had all offseason to study Louisville and try to copy Houston and LSU, but Bobby Petrino and his Cardinals staff have also had all offseason to find counters as Jackson develops into more poised and confident passer who is looking more and more like an NFL quarterback with first-round potential.
With everybody but Carlos Watkins back on the defensive line -- including Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant -- Clemson's defense can be even better than last year, but Jackson is becoming a more polished quarterback, too, adding intrigue to what can once again be one of the biggest games of the season.
Christian Wilkins on Lamar: "Last year, if his 1st read wasn't open, he ran. Now you see him going through progressions."- #DaHale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 12, 2017
Given that there is so much focus on his running ability and arm strength, Jackson has become underappreciated as a pure passer from a clean pocket. When the offensive line does hold up, Jackson possesses field vision and tremendous arm talent that allows him to fit the ball into tight spaces with accuracy and timing.
When defenses can't get pressure on Jackson, the matchup is unwinnable. They have to be concerned at all times about him running, but when he gets time, he has both the tools and mechanics to pick apart defenses from the pocket.
The raw playmaking ability is, of course, still present.
Jackson can escape from pressure that few other quarterbacks can evade simply because of his otherworldly athleticism. He makes plays that cannot be defended, showing off agility and arm strength to get the ball out from awkward positions.
That can also get him into trouble. Jackson has grown significantly, but any young player with top-tier athleticism can make mistakes by trusting that playmaking ability too much. Players like Jackson sometimes refuse to admit defeat and make mistakes by taking unnecessary risks.
It's something that will be much more difficult to get away with against NFL defenses, and even defenses like Clemson's, as opposed to North Carolina and Purdue.
The glaring mistakes, however, are minimal. Jackson's accuracy can fluctuate when he doesn't properly set his feet and step into throws, but he's been intercepted only nine times in the past 16 games.
If Jackson is pressured, it's paramount to keep contain on the edge. Jackson can escape from seemingly impossible positions, find a running lane and even keep his eyes downfield to keep all his options open before deciding that running is his best option. He's an expert at putting defenders in positions in which they're always wrong, as he waits until the last moment to decide whether to run or pass, keeping both options open as he scrambles.
Jackson creates time for himself and his receivers, who are matched up against defensive backs who can only stick in coverage so long.
No play encapsulates Jackson's talent more than one we saw against North Carolina: a 75-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Smith.
Jackson turned to his left after the snap to fake a handoff to his running back. The Tar Heels sent a blitz off Jackson's right side. An ordinary quarterback would have been sacked a split second after completing his turn. Jackson saw the free rusher coming, made a quick sidestep and had a lane to possibly take off up the middle and pick up a few yards running. Instead, after already making one phenomenal play by escaping from a free pass rusher, he gathered himself, stopped, reset his feet and let loose a perfect bomb that he made look impossibly easy, hitting Smith in stride about 50 yards downfield. Smith did the rest
For the second year in a row, Jackson has tallied over 1,000 yards of total offense in his first two games. In taking an early commanding lead in the Heisman race last year, Jackson led Louisville to a 63-20 home win over Florida State in Week 3, throwing for 216 yards and a TD and rushing for 146 yards and four TDs. So far, Jackson has followed his 2016 path, and once again his third game is at home against a top-five ACC powerhouse, giving him a chance to shine in the national spotlight against a high-profile opponent.
The matchup is much different, though. Whereas Florida State's defense was mired in a September tailspin in 2016, Clemson's defense is in peak form. The Tigers have given up 237 total yards -- less than half Jackson's 525 against UNC -- in two games against Kent State and Auburn. Clemson still has some secondary inexperience that could be tested, but it owns the nation's best defensive line, with four future NFL players starting, supported by an underrated linebacking corps led by Kendall Joseph.
Jackson put up big numbers against the Tigers last year. Still, few teams are better equipped to contain Jackson than Clemson, given that it has the speed off the edge to box Jackson in and the disruptive talent up the middle to collapse the pocket, rush Jackson's decision-making and prevent him from pulling off some of the athletic stunts he had against Purdue and North Carolina. There is no worse matchup for Louisville's vulnerable offensive line than Clemson, and thus no greater obstacle to a repeat Heisman run for Jackson, even with tough matchups against N.C. State and Florida State still to come, too.
We are still leaning how these players and teams have changed from a year ago, and this game will tell us a lot about Clemson's readiness for another playoff run, Jackson's pursuit of more individual accolades and the development of the Louisville offensive line. As ESPN's Chris Fallica pointed out, Saturday will mark just the fourth time that the defending Heisman winner meets the defending national champion. That's enough of a selling point by itself to make Saturday's game one of the most compelling of the 2017 season.
More specifically, college football's best offensive player is meeting college football's best position unit. Clemson lost that battle but won the game a year ago. This year, the matchup has a different feel with Deshaun Watson gone, putting more pressure on the defense to slow down Jackson. The Clemson defensive front is peaking, even more so than last year, but Jackson might be, too. If this Clemson line doesn't contain Jackson, it's possible that nobody will.