Saturday provides the toughest test of the entire year, barring tremendous improvement by FSU over the next month. I flip to a different predicted winner seemingly every few minutes; Notre Dame's offensive line is undeniably elite and will force Clemson to commit extra bodies against the run. Fortunately, the Tigers' secondary is dominant and the staff rightfully trusts its personnel in the defensive backfield enough to throw more bodies in running lanes.
My internal struggle boils down to: will Notre Dame pound Clemson into submission and limit opportunities for an underachieving Tiger offense? Or will the the team with the better quarterback and defense expose the ND secondary and freshman quarterback in front of a deafening Death Valley crowd? Film study inspires an educated guess.
In a break from the usual opponent film study, our own Dbbm and Notre Dame blog One Foot Down's Eric Murtaugh join me to offer their takes on select Irish drives in contests against Virginia and Georgia Tech. We returned the favor, and you can find our takes on Clemson drives against Louisville in Eric's article here.
Notre Dame Defense vs UVA -- Touchdown
Alex: ND starts the drive with a SAM/nickel blitz and UVA found a soft spot in the zone behind it. It looked like the middle linebacker didn't get back to his zone in time. On the following play, ND penetrated the UVA line with ease on a power (pulling guard) run. Clemson typically finds little success with inside power, but continues to run it in short yardage for some reason anyway.
I will never understand why we invite explosive 3 tech DTs into the backfield by pulling the guard in obvious run downs, and at this point I expect ND will crash through against Clemson until we focus on attacking the perimeter with stretch and outside zone runs.
UVA caught ND in its 3-4 base set against 5 wide empty, their only good receiver lined up in the slot and beat the SAM linebacker one on one down the sideline. ND stuffed UVA on two running plays inside the 5 (familiar territory for Clemson) before UVA found the TE for a 2 yard touchdown.
Despite giving up a TD, this wasn’t a bad defensive series. Bad luck led to a 3rd and long conversion on a tipped pass. I saw line penetration, and the unblocked defender on a zone read force the handoff and then make the tackle anyway. The only mortal error was getting caught in 3-4 base against UVA’s 5 wide set, and subsequently giving up a deep go route to the 5 yard line.
Pass defense is ND’s weakness in this game, but without Mike Williams, the downfield routes shouldn’t worry the Irish as much -- unless Peake, Thompson, or Cain has his breakout game.
Eric: First of all let me say thank you to the announcer for saying, "Hard to imagine a more dominating first quarter" when the score was only freaking 12-0. That has to go up there as one of the top announcer jinx in recent Irish memory.
That was a bad drop by our Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt on the first play. He looked lost and then didn’t drop deep enough in his zone. Schmidt really, really struggled in this game but came back in a big way against Georgia Tech.
The next couple plays UVA didn’t get much up the middle while running the ball. They eventually stopped running in between the tackles. The third down conversion completely changed the momentum in this game. The ND defensive end/tackle (Isaac Rochell) tips the ball, it goes RIGHT THROUGH safety Elijah Shumate’s hands, and into the Virginia receivers arms.
Alex: Above, Notre Dame is in its 3-4 base defense vs a diamond pistol, everything seems fine. Below, UVA switches formations and finds its mismatch.
Eric: UVA caught us in our base alignment on the next snap and got Severin against our Sam linebacker James Onwualu. Apparently, Virginia saved all these new adjustments just for this game and the deep ball might have been one of those as they switched things up right before the snap. We don’t want Onwualu matched up on anyone’s best receiver, ever. We like him sometimes against a slot receiver, or redirecting routes, or covering a tight end. Having him run 30+ yards down field isn’t ideal.
We did pretty well on the next couple snaps. Rochell showed off some nice athleticism chasing down Smoke Mizzell and forcing him to run out of real estate, then Virginia ‘wasted’ another down trying to run in between the tackles.
Third down and again Schmidt played poorly. He looked lost and ran to the flat when he didn’t need to do so. They ran a little rub/pick route (of course they weren’t going to call this because it’s never called unless you’re FSU and you start complaining) on Jaylon Smith and it was a relatively easy touchdown pass to Schmidt’s uncovered man.
Dbbm: Even on nice gains, ND’s speed and gang tackling makes extra yardage difficult. This does not bode well for Artavis Scott, who at this point in his career still does the vast majority of his damage on screens. My main takeaway from this drive is there are yards to be found versus this defense; mostly in intermediate passing.
Wayne Gallman has played well all year but this will be a hard front to run against. Even if the defensive line weren't particularly scary, Notre Dame is fast and gang tackles as well as anyone I have seen so far this year. Bend don’t break is a tried and true formula and speedy gang tackling is its cornerstone.
Notre Dame Defense vs UVA -- 3 & Out
Dbbm: Surprisingly, Virginia found success up the middle here on 1st down. When Virginia gets off schedule due to a penalty and the secondary knows there’s no real run threat, they sniffed the screen out in three seconds. It was the right call, too, there was only one defender in position to make the tackle, but he burst past the poor blocking attempts and made the play.
There are a lot of missing starters for Notre Dame, and Clemson is deep at wide receiver. I don’t know if we have a true deep threat without Mike Williams and that could hurt us, this team might be too quick to try to dink and dunk reliably on. Fortunately, we have Deshaun Watson and he is everything you want in a quarterback. I have a lot of questions regarding how Notre Dame will handle a mobile quarterback out of the spread. We have seen the latter vs Virginia and the former vs GT, but not both at once.
Eric Yup, that was one of Virginia’s rare quality inside runs, especially in the second half. Nose guard Daniel Cage does a nice job making the stop to prevent a larger gain.
Another receiver screen and Onwualu does a good job setting the edge and forcing the ball-carrier inside. THAT is what we like to use Onwualu for, not running down the seam with a receiver. The safety Elijah Shumate comes up and cleans up the play.
On the false start you can see the Irish go to their dime coverage. A defensive end and Onwualu come off the field, we’ve moved corner Russell to nickel, brought on an extra corner in Butler, and also brought on safety Drue Tranquill (who is now injured for the rest of the season). Also, notice Jaylon Smith is lined up as an edge rusher.
After the penalty the same unit is on the field but Jaylon is back inside at linebacker. We’ll move him around to take advantage of his skills, of which there are many.
The receiver does a terrible job blocking Jaylon Smith and makes it far too easy for him to get off his man and make this stop. Getting a good block on No. 9 had to be top priority for Virginia and they failed.
Notre Dame Offense vs Georgia Tech -- Touchdown
Dbbm: Outside of one instance where #96 jumps the snap and forces a grounding penalty, neither CJ Prosise nor Deshone Kizer are even close to touched in the backfield. The OL drove the GT front several yards off the ball on a bootleg for God’s sake. Will Fuller is already unfair, Will Fuller with six seconds to get open should be against the law. Deshone Kizer has played exceptionally well and enjoyed pristine protection.
Young quarterbacks, especially young mobile quarterbacks, take a lot of sacks. Sacks force passing downs and that puts a lot of pressure on a young QB. The question is if Clemson can crack ND’s OL. Shaq Lawson is a beast off the edge, but Ronnie Stanley may be the best left tackle in the country. Ben Boulware is a major blitzing threat -- he’s also a liability in coverage. Pagano, Watkins and Dodd must beat their man consistently enough to at least make Kizer worry.
Alex: I’ll add that the final two plays on this drive were feast or famine for Tech. On 2nd down, Tech sniffs out the screen and gets to Kizer to force intentional grounding. It wasn't Tech beating ND's OL, it was awareness of the screen which allowed the unblocked linemen to pressure Kizer. Then in 3rd and 20, it’s 4 verticals vs quarters. Kizer has all day (pass rush is key for Clemson here) and found Fuller one on one since the safety had to cover the slot receiver after the linebacker released him. Safety can’t help the corner in time, and then it’s simply Fuller abusing a poor corner...with maybe a little offensive pass interference.
Eric: Notre Dame hasn’t pulled linemen often under Kelly but they’re doing it much more this year. In back-to-back snaps we pulled right guard Steve Elmer and he made a nice block to let Prosise get the edge for 5 yards. Then, we pulled left guard Quenton Nelson as Prosise turned on the Beast Mode for a first down.
It’s too bad Elmer got smoked and caused the intentional grounding penalty. But, throwing it up to Fuller has been a good idea for a young quarterback this year.
Notre Dame Offfense vs Georgia Tech -- Interception
Alex: ND opens the drive with 113 personnel against GT’s 3-3-5 nickel. The nickel blitzes from the boundary, but the OL picks it up easily, which allows Kizer to scramble for an easy first down.
Two plays later, ND tries a quick screen and Tech is in good position with two defenders vs one blocker and the Fuller, the ball carrier. The blocker whiffed but Fuller easily slips the first tackler anyway, wow, then accelerates nauseatingly quickly and almost outruns everyone before meeting the tackler at the 5. Fuller’s speed is not overblown and obviously doesn’t need much blocking.
ND proceeds to throw an interception in the endzone, miscommunication is to blame. The receiver turned inside for a moment while the ball was thrown for a fade. Robinson couldn’t recover in time and the corner had perfect position. I noticed on the previous play ND ran play action before an eventual incompletion to the TE. During the play action, the entire OL shoved GT into the endzone. With this OL, there is no reason to throw inside the 5 yard line. Hopefully Clemson can benefit from such charity.
Dbbm: After Saturday I’m sure I’ll love to see Fuller with the ball in his hands, but for the rest of the week he terrifies me. Notre Dame scores if they run inside zone merely once inside the 5, but instead run what is either inside zone bootleg or a horribly broken play where Kizer just puts the ball in air -- which could have been intercepted. Either way, it’s intercepted on the next play and it's a WTF moment for the Irish playcaller. Like Alex said, awfully charitable of ND to decide not to score there.
Eric: Kizer has shown pretty good mobility for a bigger guy as you can see on first down. That was a big worry for us after Zaire went down. Zaire was like having another running back but Kizer has been solid making plays with his legs.
On second down you can see we pull left tackle Ronnie Stanley as true freshman Josh Adams picks up a few yards. Hey, that Fuller guy shows up again! He’s too quick for the tackler who read the play well but still got left in the dust. Sneaky lucky play (that was kind of forgotten later in the game) to recover a possible fumble at the end of the play.
We try to run read option but it’s unclear just how much Kizer is reading. This was a huge problem with all Notre Dame quarterbacks prior to Zaire. We basically pretend to read the defense but most of the time it’s just a called give to the running back. Good defenses have taken advantage of this.
I don’t know what happened on the second-to-last play. Adams doesn’t bother with a handoff and it looks like it completely threw Kizer off his game into a busted play. I think they might have been looking to throw it to Alize Jones anyway, which they did, but this was a risky pass.
That foreshadowed the next play which Kizer admitted was his fault. He read the coverage wrong and threw the fade. Young quarterback mistake.
Alex: Rather than hoping for an unforced error like against GT, Clemson must force Kizer into pressure situations. Clemson's chance of victory depends largely on its defensive line -- it must control running lanes and put pressure on Kizer when forced to pass. ND fans seem less confident in their defense, but it doesn't ease my concerns with the Clemson offense. ND is prone to give up the big play, and it is on Tony Elliott to find ways for Watson to take advantage of it.
After studying film, I am less enamored with this Notre Dame team. Under normal conditions at home, Clemson should win. The pouring rain and wind will neutralize Clemson's greatest advantage (Watson vs the ND secondary), but I can't blame weather to change the outcome -- it should result in less points for both teams. Due to my faith in the Clemson defense and concerns with the Clemson offense, I predict a lower-scoring game than most: Clemson 24, ND 20.