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Clemson versus Notre Dame Preview: Separating Men from Boys

Who is a true contender? The world will know on Saturday night in Death Valley!

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Let's start this off just saying one thing...

This is what it is all about!  If Clemson is going to make 2015 a special season, then this game is a make or break moment.  Clemson has a golden (pardon the pun) opportunity to stake a spot in the top 10 and position itself for a run to the playoffs.  In the way stands Notre Dame.  While the current generation hasn't had to live with the Irish hype train the way those of us who might have grown up in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, there is no denying that playing the Irish remains a big deal.  It certainly helps that the current edition is a playoff contender in its own right and has been one of the more frequent mentions as a playoff bound team.  The clash with FSU is probably the bigger game simply due to conference implications, but I have waited a long time to see the Tigers get to test wills against the Irish.  A big win in a game like this resonates.  Both teams have lost some major impact players, but it has clearly been demonstrated that each team has the firepower to make a run to January even with those losses.  Clemson's last game of this magnitude was a bitter disappointment against FSU in 2013.  Let's hope the current group of Tigers puts its best foot forward unlike that team did.

Clemson offense versus Notre Dame defense: Journeyman defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder runs the show for the Irish.  He has been his typical aggressive self so far this year.  Clemson hasn't seen a team really try to get aggressive and challenge the Tigers in the secondary the way the Irish likely will.  It is certainly the perfect stage for DeShaun Watson to re-establish himself in the upper echelon of college players after a ho-hum day at Louisville.  However, some have said and I will agree that if 70% completions, 2 TD's, 200 yards of passing and over 50 rushing is a bad day, then sign me up.  I've lived through some horrific QB performances from Rodney Williams to Nealon Greene to Will Proctor to Cullen Harper to Kyle Parker to even Tajh Boyd and the Watson game at Louisville wasn't nearly that bad.  However, we have great expectations and have seen much better, and much better needs to be on the menu Saturday night.

The Irish are talented on defense, but I've seen both UVA and UMass have success against them in ways that give me confidence the Tigers can hurt them.  The key to this game will be taking care of the ball and avoiding the disaster play.  The emergence of Wayne Gallman is a factor not to be underestimated.  Kraken has correctly noted that if Clemson ever gets to running the A gap well, then this offense is a nightmare to defend.  Gallman has elevated his play to become a difference maker, and the Clemson offensive line has improved its run blocking a good bit.  The Cardinals really banked on being able to stop the Tiger run game with a basic box and 2 deep safeties but couldn't do it.  It was mostly Clemson's self inflicted wounds that kept the offense from breaking 30 points.  Some of that sloppiness had to be expected with the ridiculously fast turnaround from a Saturday home game to a Thursday road game.  I expect a sharper effort coming off the layover of the open date.  We have yet to see the best of this offense this year and Saturday night would be a perfect time to see it.

The Irish appear confident to try to play some press man and single high safety against the Tigers.  It will be imperative for Charone Peake and Germone Hopper, if not Deon Cain, Artavis Scott, or Ray Ray McCloud, to take the top off the defense when these opportunities arise.  Much of this game will come down to which team can hurt the other over the top.  Notre Dame was able to take control of the GT game early with going over the top on them. Corner Keivarae Russell seems to think the Irish WR corps surpasses Clemson's.  I would certainly have that up on the bulletin board.  Time for #WRU to live up to the name.

Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith is a very good player.  It will be important that the Tigers recognize when he is coming on blitzes because he possesses the kind of athleticism that can really create a mess if he's turned loose.  UMass was able to take advantage of his aggressiveness a couple of times in the first half for big plays.  Hopefully the ScElliot brain-trust will have something ready to do the same.  It goes without saying that the Tiger OL needs to be able to handle the standard four man rushes and force the Irish to commit the fifth and sixth guy to generate pressure.  If the Tigers can run the ball anything like they did at Louisville, there is no reason the team can't go over 30 points in this game.  Of course, guys like Peake can't pull a no-show like we saw at Louisville.

Clemson defense versus Notre Dame offense: Clemson has faced some high powered offensive attacks the last few years.  UGA, FSU, and Ohio State come to mind (I leave off GT simply because of the option factor), and Clemson fared well in the trenches in most of those contests.  Notre Dame has an offensive line that is very good and will test the talents of the Tigers front four.  Tiger fans have to be thrilled from the work put in by Carlos Watkins, Scott Pagano, War Daddy Christian Wilkins, Shaq Lawson, and Kevin Dodd to this point.  All have performed at a level above what they had done before (or, in Wilkins case, done in high school).  Shaq Lawson has a golden opportunity to make a jump on draft boards if he can get the better of Ronnie Stanley a few times on Saturday night.  This offense is similar to the Ohio State unit the Tigers faced in the Orange Bowl.  Kiser isn't the runner Braxton Miller was, but otherwise they have the speed/size combinations at WR and TE the Buckeyes had as well as a powerful running game.  The Tigers were able to put a beating on Miller that day, and introducing Kiser to the Death Valley turf will be an important factor in slowing the Irish attack.  Brent Venables has done a masterful job the last few seasons of exploiting the weakness of the opposing quarterback.  The only time he really couldn't do that effectively was against Winston in 2013 and last year's UGA game (thanks to the ability of UGA to run the ball that day).  Venables will do everything in his power to force Kiser to win the game and take the run game out of the equation.

I would be extremely tempted to play Kearse down at the SAM spot and use Jadar Johnson with Green in the back.  This would allow Venables to avoid some potentially scary matchups with either Blanks or Carter on an Irish slot or tight end.  Notre Dame's ability to run and pass makes the mix and match approach BV has used at SAM so far a more shaky proposition.  Kearse has proven to be more than adequate at getting physical in the box.  I'm not sure we will see this but if you are trying to get the best 11 on the field, I would take Johnson at safety ahead of Blanks or Carter in the nickle/SAM position.  The Tigers have shown some heavy blitzing so far this season and I expect that to continue.  Hopefully Venables will have one of those landmark plays where a particular blitz is a surprise and leads to a big play (like the Crawford pick vs. UGA in 2013, and the Watkins pick six against App State).  Creating a mistake or two from the Irish is going to be very important.  As good as the Tiger defense is, it isn't deep enough at this stage to handle being out there too long.

Prosise is a very capable back, as he has proven so far this season, and he has the wheels to burn the Tigers for a cheap TD.  He doesn't have the power of a Carlos Hyde or Samaje Perine, but he is trouble if he gets loose in the second level.  I think he is more of a Rod McDowell type in that he is a good, capable runner who benefits from having some big time WR help on the outside.  The Irish have had their way with folks on that side of the ball, for the most part, but they haven't played anyone who can physically match up with them on the outside the way Clemson can.  Such as the challenge Clemson had in facing FSU the last few years, the Irish will have to deal with a more aggressive approach in coverage than they usually see.  As a result, it was actually Robinson and not Fuller who caused the Seminoles the most problems in Tallahassee last year.  Robinson's size helped to negate the tight coverage FSU employed on the outside.  That will be something to watch on Saturday night.

Special Teams: Once again, we here at STS have some exclusive footage from a recent special teams meeting:

Is it too much to ask for Danny Pearman and whoever else runs the kick coverage to channel some Dr. Cox and get some results?  We once again long for the days of David Dunham and Steven Jackson busting heads on kick returns.  After nearly getting busted for two long TD returns in the App. State game, the unit once again got gashed and burned at Louisville that allowed the Cardinals to stay in the game.  I personally saw C.J. Fuller get tossed to the ground like a rag doll before Samuel blazed through the gap he should have had.  In a game like this one, Clemson simply cannot just gift horse great field position or points via some return or kicking game fiasco.  Just reference the 2014 UGA game and 2012 FSU game for exhibits A and B of this.  Perhaps the one silver lining from all of this is Mr. Bag Boy Greg Huegel stepped up and got the job done with field goals.  And, to channel my inner Tommy Bowden, I could reference the utter disaster of the Georgia Tech special teams last week who gave up not only a kick return TD and a punt return to the 1 yard line, but also snapped the ball over the punter's head.  It wasn't THAT bad.  However, we all expect much better this weekend!

Overall: As I said before, there are only a few of these opportunities afforded your program each year.  Winning this game gives the Tigers instant top 10 credibility and positions it for a run to the playoffs.  My worries about this game stem from the way Notre Dame's strengths line up with Clemson's.  Clemson usually can count on the front four winning the day at the line of scrimmage, yet ND's strength on offense is up front.  Clemson also normally will enjoy an advantage on the outside with the secondary.  App. State found this out pretty fast when they couldn't get anybody open before the rush was getting home.  Notre Dame features one of the top WR units in the country, headlined by Will Fuller.  It will be a very interesting battle to watch indeed.

I do feel the Tiger defense matches up with Notre Dame's offense better than the Notre Dame defense matches up with the Tiger offense.  The Irish have some good players on defense, but outside of Jaylon Smith, I'm not sure I see first round draft pick guys on that side.  The Irish don't have a Shaq Lawson on the DL or a Jayron Kearse in the secondary.  Clearly turnovers are key in these fairly even match-ups.  The infamous fumble to start the FSU game in 2013 just allowed all the air to go out of the balloon.  Then, the ability of the quarterback to affect the game is the next major key.  Clemson needs Watson to be Watson and prove he is the best guy on the field.  His recognition ability and accuracy should be on full display.  Meanwhile, the Tigers need to hope Kiser pees his leg and doesn't calmly go to work the way Winston did in 2013.  The looming bad weather is a potential X factor and will make ball security even more of a premium.  I won't go so far as predicting the game here, but I will say there hasn't been a team I've watched this year that I have felt the Tigers can't play with and beat.  Clemson has the personnel at this stage to get it done.  Michigan State made its jump with the Oregon win, Ole Miss made the jump beating Alabama.  The Tigers need to make the jump by beating the Irish.  If nothing else, we are going to tailgate like certified professionals and make the last night game tailgate look like a Baptist picnic!