LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The number is 17. That’s how many tickets I had for a single University of Louisville football game in 1987.

I didn’t have them because I had 16 friends to take. I had them because that’s how many I could get, because a couple of us just wondered how many free tickets we could get for a game by taking them whenever they were offered. I got them through the alumni office and various clubs and from friends and some were just left on the front desk in my dorm. I might’ve even gotten a couple of free ones from Convenient Food Mart.

It didn’t take much effort. The biggest effort was dragging myself to the game against Murray State.

I can’t help but think about those days when I see ESPN’s College GameDay set up on the front lawn of Grawemeyer Hall for tonight’s 8 p.m. national showdown with No. 3-ranked Clemson, or the Heisman Trophy in the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium lobby, or even the stadium itself. I certainly thought about it when I saw that the cheapest nosebleed seat in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is $136.

In a single aerial shot of campus I counted at least five buildings and one road on campus that were not there when I was a student.

It’s all pretty heady. Still.

To his credit, U of L coach Bobby Petrino is looking to move beyond all that. The hype. The spectacle. The novelty. U of L was in this situation a year ago, took a step for the program with a 63-20 blowout of No. 2 Florida State, then narrowly missed the upset a week later at Clemson.

Back in this situation again, it’s all about taking the next step.

“For us,” Petrino told ESPN. “It’s about getting one step closer to our ultimate goal of a national championship.”

Clemson has already made that step. It won the national championship last season. It is used to these games. It went into Tallahassee last season and made that step.

“We know whoever wins this game is going to be a step ahead in the ACC,” Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant told ESPN.

“This one here can basically determine who wins the ACC,” Louisville wideout Jaylen Smith said.

So everyone knows the stakes. Below are a few pre-snap keys.

1). HELPING LAMAR JACKSON. The University of Louisville Heisman Trophy winner lent his actual game jersey to Cardinals basketball coach Rick Pitino, who was the celebrity guest picker on the College GameDay set. Pitino told a great story about setting up an entire defense to stop Michael Jordan, but Jordan still delivering anyway, with the moral, “Sometimes a great player can beat you.”

But Kirk Herbstriet said, it’s tough to argue, “The key is can Lamar Jackson get help from a running back to take some of the pressure off of him. Last year they did a very good job of getting others involved.”

Louisville’s offense started to go when Brandon Radcliff found some running room. Though he carried the ball only 13 times, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry. The Cardinals’ offense this season started to look like its old self in the second half at North Carolina, when Malik Williams got things going and finished with 149 rushing yards.

U of L has to have a running game, and a quick passing game, using Jackson’s much-improved accuracy on quick slant and seam routes.

It also likely will need to use a little trickery, hoping to use an aggressive Clemson front’s desire to pin its ears back and get to Jackson against it, perhaps working Reggie Bonnafon into some trick-play situations. Petrino doesn’t like trickery of that kind, but might be well served by that, or a reverse here or there.

2). DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT. Louisville has not been good against the pass this season, 123rd nationally. It likely will be without its preseason All-American cornerback Jaire Alexander, which is a blow to this defense. Alexander is a shut-down defender and his presence on the field makes opposing offenses a bit more predictable in where they will go with the football.

The Cardinals are going to have to get a better pass rush together than they have in previous games, and must force Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant to become one-dimensional. If Clemson is able to get it going offensively and put some early points on the board, Louisville could be in a bit more trouble than it was a year ago – and it was in a lot of trouble in that game.

3). DON’T FORGET SPECIAL TEAMS. Louisville’s coverage teams have left something to be desired this season. Field position for opponents, as a result, has been pretty good, particularly on kickoff coverage.

It doesn’t matter how far you can kick it if you don’t get things covered.

On the other hand, Louisville’s Seth Dawkins has been solid returning kickoffs, and a big one in this game could be a big boost against what has been an outstanding Clemson defense.

4). INTANGIBLES. Clemson has been in plenty of big-game situations, but its first-year starter at quarterback has not. This is one of those rare occasions where crowd and stage could make a difference in Louisville’s favor, at least as regards the Clemson signal-caller.

“If Louisville is going to win this football game, it’s not going to be just Lamar Jackson,” Herbstreit said. “Their defense and their crowd are going to have to make it hard for Kelly Bryant.”

This is the fourth time Louisville has ever played host to a defending national champion, and the first time they’ll play host to a Top 10 opponent on a Saturday night in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. They’ve won 11 Saturday night games in a row in the stadium, and this will be only their second ACC night game since joining the league three seasons ago.

Something about the stadium at night agrees with the Cardinals. Lee Corso agreed, picking Louisville to pull the upset. We’ll see if the Cards – and their crowd – can back him up.

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