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Cotton Bowl - Clemson vs. Notre Dame Preview: Q&A with One Foot Down

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NCAA Football: Florida State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Cotton Bowl is nearing and to help us preview it, we connected with Patrick of One Foot Down, our SB Nation sister site, We discuss Notre Dame’s vulnerabilities, their slow starts, their QB change, and of course, their insistence on not joining us in the ACC. You can follow Patrick on twitter here.

STS: Notre Dame is a bit tricky to analyze, because they had several games early in the year without QB Ian Book and RB Dexter Williams. One thing that stands out though is just how well-rounded they are as a team. For all the talk about Ian Book, they’re more run-centric than Clemson and they run it well. They are strong defensively, and they don’t seem to have any major “glitches” or any obvious weaknesses. How accurate is that perception and what would you say is the closest thing to a relative weakness they have?

Pat: I would say it’s fairly accurate -- I can’t remember the last Notre Dame football team that was this well-rounded on both offense and defense, especially with Ian Book’s emergence meaning the offense is no longer one-dimensional and can really sling it around the field. This isn’t your 2012 Fighting Irish.

I will say, though, that there are definitely some position groups that can be exploited or beaten, and that Clemson absolutely has the personnel to do the job. The ND offensive line has been good this year, but preseason All-American guard Alex Bars was lost for the year early on, and the offensive tackles -- Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey -- though improved from earlier in the season, are nowhere near perfect.

Great pass rushers will absolutely expose them at times. Michigan’s Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary were able to get a ton of pressure in the season opener, but luckily Brandon Wimbush’s elite scrambling ability allowed him to escape and make plays. Book can do some of the same things with his feet, but isn’t quite as fast or as instinctual of a runner, so Clemson’s top-notch defensive line certainly scares me (the talent you guys have there is just unfair). Book is one of the most accurate passers in the country (#4 nationally in completion percentage, #8 in passing efficiency), but when pressured, he does sometimes try to force things, leading to interceptions.

For how good Notre Dame’s pass defense has been this year (#4 in the country in pass efficiency defense, #2 in passing TDs allowed, #3 in yards allowed per passing attempt despite seeing the 10th-most pass attempts of any team in the country), I do think that if the Irish defensive line isn’t able to get consistent pressure on the QB (defensive coordinator Clark Lea usually doesn’t send more than 4-5 guys), the secondary can be exploited.

Julian Love is an All-American corner and Alohi Gilman has been fantastic at safety, so I don’t see them getting exposed much, even if the pass rush hangs them out to dry. But the corner opposite Love, Troy Pride Jr., has had lapses this year that led to nice plays through the air for opponents, and safety Jalen Elliott, though vastly improved from a year ago, is still a guy I could see getting beaten if he has no support up front. Also, if depth is needed for whatever reason in the secondary (God forbid), there are some true freshmen like TaRiq Bracy at cornerback and Houston Griffith at safety that would likely need to step in, and of course they will not be perfect as rookies on such a big stage.

Finally, Notre Dame’s special teams has not been very good this year (something it seems Clemson fans can relate to), and specifically the Irish have given up a couple momentum-shifting kick return touchdowns. If Clemson has any fast, capable returners, I could absolutely see the Irish allowing a big play on a kickoff or punt that flips the script, or piles on, momentum-wise.

STS: I have a nasty reputation as a Notre Dame apologist. That’s mostly because I’m quick to defend their right to remain independent. I think it’s a cool story of how they overcame anti-Catholic bigotry and how they fight for it to maintain some of their traditional matchups (Navy, USC, Stanford, etc.). While I’d love the Irish to join the ACC, as it would make the ACC stronger financially and on the field, I understand remaining independent is a major desire for Notre Dame fans. Can you speak to this preference and the history behind it?

Pat: Absolutely, and I think you summarized a lot of it really well in your question. ND was consistently blackballed by Michigan and a number of other Big Ten schools during the first half of the 20th century thanks to ADs and coaches at those Midwest institutions that had a lot of anti-Catholic hate fueling their actions (looking at you, Fielding Yost). So, that forced Notre Dame to go “barnstorming” around the country playing a national schedule against the likes of USC, Texas, Army, Stanford, Navy, etc., creating a national brand and allowing the Irish to quickly develop into the national powerhouse they became.

At this point, with conference member TV payouts, Notre Dame’s NBC contract isn’t making them more than they’d get from those payouts in a conference like the ACC, but I don’t think it’s about money (or at least, just TV money) for ND at this point. The football team’s rise to power is what led to the university’s rise to being a top-notch school, and so that independent, Catholic, national-brand identity is something anyone connected to Notre Dame holds dear and wants to protect.

Furthermore, although TV money may not be greater in ND’s NBC case anymore, the Irish would certainly lose a lot of its value and revenue as a program if it were to become a regional team and stop playing games in California and Texas and everywhere else they’ve been able to go thanks to the flexibility of their schedule. And who knows how that could affect the Irish’s ability to recruit at a high level nationwide, considering they rely on recruits coming from almost everywhere to build out a competitive national program?

Independence, even if it’s a bit watered down by having to play 5 ACC teams every year, is as much a part of the Notre Dame identity as leprechauns or Knute Rockne or Lou Holtz or Tim Brown or anything else. As long as the Irish have a football program, they will want to remain an independent and protect that identity. You can be sure of that.

STS: When Clemson has the ball on offense, what individual or position matchup gives you the most optimism that Notre Dame can slow Clemson down? Which worries you most?

Pat: Even though the stats say Notre Dame’s defense is strongest in pass efficiency, I think what gives me the most optimism is that I personally believe the Notre Dame defense is going to be able to bottle up Travis Etienne (and Lyn-J Dixon and Adam Choice) on the ground fairly effectively. Yes, yes, I know that sounds sort of crazy considering those are 3 of the top 13 backs in the country in terms of yards-per-carry, and I’m sure Etienne especially will break loose a few times, considering he’s averaging more than 8 yards per carry and his season stats this year would basically all be ND records if he were Irish.

But the ND defense has been, by and large, a sure-tackling, swarming unit that really hasn’t had any running back gash them for big numbers this year (only one person has gained 100 yards on them -- Navy QB Malcolm Perry). Etienne is definitely the best runner they’ve faced, so it will be a whole new challenge, but the Irish linebackers (Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, Asmar Bilal) are all fast, strong, veteran guys, and Clemson hasn’t faced a defense this good in any game they’ve played this year, either.

I think Notre Dame will have their hands full, and Etienne may even run for more than 100, but ultimately I think the Irish defense will do a good job limiting Clemson’s dangerous running attack and forcing Trevor Lawrence to make some plays through the air in order to win the game.

In terms of worries, I think my biggest ones boil down to if Trevor Lawrence is allowed to get comfortable in the pocket and make said plays to win the game. Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, etc., are physically-gifted receivers who can certainly get open if given the chance, and if Lawrence isn’t flushed out of the pocket, hit, pressured, sacked, etc., he’s obviously good enough to hit those receivers when they eventually do get open.

Plus, as I said above, I think Etienne is a back who can find open spaces on passing downs and help move the chains through the air, so I’m very worried about how the ND defense covers him along with all those Clemson receivers (including Hunter Renfrow in the slot, who will certainly be a pain in the ass to keep track of).

The Irish pass rush has been the best it’s been since 2012 for sure, but there have been times that Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, etc., have been unable to get pressure on their own, and if that happens in this game, Trevor Lawrence may be starting his 2019 Heisman campaign before New Year’s Day.

STS: Notre Dame and Clemson transitioned from true-running QBs to very good passing QBs (who can also run it a bit) within a week of each other. Immediately upon Notre Dame’s Week 4 change, the Ian Book-led offense exploded against Wake Forest. They then did the same against Stanford and then Virginia Tech before normalizing somewhere between the sluggish first three games and those ridiculous next three. How was the QB-change handled by all involved parties? What did the fan base think of it at the time? Do you believe they’re here without it?

Pat: At the time of the QB change, I would say the ND faithful had mixed feelings. A lot of people had decided Brandon Wimbush wasn’t the guy, and were clamoring for Book, despite no statistical evidence that he would be any better or any less turnover-prone (i.e. the backup QB is always the answer, right??).

On the other hand, people like me, while recognizing that Wimbush was super limited and inconsistent in his passing abilities, thought he was still the best option due to his elite athleticism, running ability, and track record as a starter. Book’s appearances in 2017 were largely not good, although he did play pretty well against LSU in the Citrus Bowl (including throwing the game-winning TD pass to Miles Boykin).

So, when the change happened, I personally was very much against it (as were others), thinking Book wouldn’t be any sort of significant step up and we would lose Wimbush’s running ability, which was a huge factor in beating Michigan in Week 1.

Obviously, Ian Book came in and proved me and a whole lot of others wrong, both immediately and then long-term, week-after-week. The offense turned into an efficient, ball-moving machine that suddenly had nearly-automatic short-to-intermediate passes in its arsenal. Couple that fact with Dexter Williams’ return for the Stanford game, and it was like watching a whole new offense in Weeks 4, 5 and 6. I am positive ND would not have gone undefeated and made the CFP without the Book change, just like I am positive that Notre Dame wouldn’t have beaten Michigan in Week 1 without Brandon Wimbush.

The change was handled well by all involved. Book was ready to play when called upon, exploded in front of everyone’s eyes, and has handled his newfound fame and attention with a quiet confidence.

Brandon Wimbush was even more impressive, being a senior who was something like 12-3 as a starter who lost his job to a largely unproven backup. He handled that with grace, never sulking and instead supporting Book, helping him prepare for each game with enthusiasm, serving as a leader in the locker room and on the sideline, and even successfully taking the reins against Florida State, on Senior Night, when Book was injured.

Finally, as an admitted Brian Kelly hater for the majority of his time at ND, I have to say that I thought Brian Kelly handled the change incredibly well, and should get more credit than he has for making this change despite the team being undefeated. Most coaches wouldn’t make a change like that at the most important position -- especially with an incumbent veteran who had barely lost any games -- until the team had already lost once or twice (exception: Mr. Nick Saban).

Kelly’s gutsy decision to pull the trigger on the change with a 3-0 football team was fantastic and paid off in a huge way.

STS: Notre Dame has been exceptional at closing out games, but they’ve had some rough starts. They trailed Pittsburgh and Southern Cal at halftime. They were tied with Ball State and Northwestern at halftime. With Trevor Lawrence at the helm, Clemson is capable of scoring quickly. What does Notre Dame have to do to avoid a slow start?

Pat: It’s really about the offense getting going early.

In all of those games, the Irish defense was largely doing its job -- none of those opponents had more than 10 points at halftime. But the offense sputtered, or never even started, in the first halves of those match-ups, so it will be key for offensive coordinator Chip Long and his group to come into the first half with a smart, scripted game plan ready to move the ball and score some points early, making it less likely the Irish will need a dramatic comeback to win the game.

STS: WR Miles Boykin and RB Dexter Williams are obvious playmakers who will make an impact in this game. Is there someone less obvious that stands out to you as a major X-factor for the Irish in this one?

Pat: If we are talking offense, there are a few other guys who could be huge for ND in this one.

  • Chase Claypool is a large, athletic target opposite Boykin at WR, and he’s often a go-to-guy for Book on third downs
  • Chris Finke is another favorite target of Book, and is a slippery (his nickname is literally “Slippery Fox”), reliable slot receiver who honestly is pretty similar to Hunter Renfrow in that he’s a former walk-on who doesn’t look like a stud but who certainly has come up big for the team in various moments
  • Tight end Alize Mack has had a great year as well, and his combination of size and quickness for a tight end could give Clemson safeties and linebackers issues
  • Finally, Jafar Armstrong is a converted WR who is now at RB who’s very quick and can contribute both on the ground with some big runs and in the passing game considering his receiver background; plus, he’s apparently finally healthy after dealing with a number of ailments in the final 2/3 of the season

On defense, obviously there are guys you’ve been hearing of like Julian Love and Jerry Tillery to worry about, but the names most Clemson fans are probably less familiar with, but should be, are:

  • Alohi Gilman (Navy-transfer safety who flies all over the field and talks a lot of shit)
  • Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill (do-it-all senior linebackers who are the heart and soul of the defense -- they will be everywhere, for better or worse, during this game)
  • Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem at defensive end (Okwara is a freak athlete who has been nearly unblockable -- without holding him -- this year, and Kareem is a powerful, athletic end who oftentimes gets the sacks that Okwara’s pressure helps create).

STS: Oddsmakers have the line at +11.5 for the Irish. How do you think Notre Dame performs relative to those expectations?

Pat: Every bit of logic in my brain says that Clemson probably wins this game, and for a while now I’ve been saying that this game could either be close with either team winning, or Clemson winning in a blowout (I don’t see Notre Dame blowing this Clemson team out at all).

I don’t think Clemson will blow ND out, though -- the Irish have enough going on on both sides of the ball to hang around against probably any team in the country this year, save Alabama -- so the logical response from me is to say Clemson wins in a close one, but maybe ND beats the spread and loses by 5-10 points.

But making this pick using solely my brain and its logical reasoning would be super boring, and ND hasn’t had a game yet this year where I didn’t pick the Irish. I’m certainly not gonna stop being a homer now, you guys.

I think Notre Dame wins this thing outright. I’ll say 30-27, final score. Bring on *shudders* Bama.

Despite an incorrect final prediction, we thank Pat for joining us for this article. The our half of the Q&A has posted to One Foot Down and can be viewed here. We hope you enjoyed this and we wish you a Merry Christmas!