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Cotton Bowl Preview: #2 Clemson faces #3 Notre Dame

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The Game Most Have Pined For All Year is Here

Goodyear Cotton Bowl - USC v Ohio State Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

I count myself among those who wanted to meet Notre Dame in the playoffs once it started looking likely the Irish would make it. I even found myself conflicted when tussled with Pitt. Normally I would have been completely behind Pittsburgh ruining their season, but part of me wanted the Irish to escape and make it to this stage. This certainly comes off as very arrogant, which I own, but I’ve felt very strongly that the Tigers match up very well with Notre Dame and the Irish are less scary an opener than Oklahoma or Ohio State would have been. It is the teams that can explode offensively that are most dangerous to the 2018 Tigers, and while the Irish are a well coached and capable offensive unit, they are not nearly as explosive as the Sooners or Buckeyes. I certainly prefer the Tiger offense having some margin for error for those loose drives that seem to pop up here and there. Let’s get to the matchups!

Clemson defense vs. Notre Dame offense: I vividly recall writing the preview for the 2015 game against ND and being very concerned about how the Clemson defense would hold up against an elite ND offensive line. For nearly three full quarters, the Tigers DL was lights out, taking away the Irish run game. Mackensie Alexander became a personal blanket for star WR Will Fuller. Clemson went into turtle mode on offense and the snap load starting mounting before ND got things going on offense. The good news is this year’s ND offense is not on the level of the 2015 unit. The Irish are solid on the OL, but not the elite unit from 2015. I think Ian Book is a good quarterback, but I don’t think he is the big play threat that DeShone Kizer was. The Irish rely on scheme and execution above all else with this year’s offense. They are dangerous IF the Tigers bring the kind of mental lethargy we saw against the Gamecocks, but I’d rank the USCjr offense ahead of this Irish one in terms of explosive ability.

This is not to say the Irish can’t or won’t hurt the Tigers. If they are able to get Dexter Williams going in the run game with any kind of efficiency (4 yards per rush or better), the Irish will then be able to attack the weaker areas of the Clemson defense with their slot and tight ends off of play action. I was a little worried about Boston College hurting Clemson with the tight ends, but when they couldn’t run the ball, the tight ends became ineffective. If you recall the 2010 season for Clemson, Dwayne Allen’s production dropped considerably during the second half of the season because Andre Ellington got hurt and the Tiger run game struggled. Tight ends really need the run game to be at their best in the passing game.

Ian Book is an accurate intermediate thrower. His ability to attack from 10-20 yards is really what separates him from Wimbush, whom he beat out. Wimbush is a capable deep ball guy but was largely erratic in that intermediate area. The same can be said for the difference in Trevor Lawrence vs. Kelly Bryant. I compare Book to NCSU’s Ryan Finley, and I think the Tigers need to defend him in much the same manner. Clemson struggled to contain Finley’s precise timing game in 2017 but did an outstanding job this season. I fully expect the Irish to attack Clemson with the slot post action that USCjr exploited for nearly 300 yards of offense. Of course, I also expect Clemson to defend this in a much different fashion, as in not dropping Ferrell and Bryant into coverage nearly as much. I expect Venables to trust A.J. Terrell and Trayvon Mullen to hold up on their own on the outside and dedicate the safety help to the middle of the field. The Irish will test the waters with fades and back shoulder throws, so how Terrell and Mullen hold up against the big outside WR’s for the Irish will be a major factor.

I can probably count on one hand how many grind it out drives this Clemson defense has given up this year. Nearly every scoring drive surrendered (and there really hasn’t been that many) has required at least one explosive play of 20+ yards. The Irish will need to find these enough to get to that magic offensive scoring number of 28, which is what I think a team will have to hit to beat this year’s Tigers. Can the Irish manufacture enough of a run game to give them enough balance to create these plays? That is the key question to their hopes of pulling this game out (if turnovers don’t play a major factor).

The Tigers expect star DT Dexter Lawrence to be unavailable following testing positive for a sliver of osterine. Lawrence is certainly a major run stuffer, but veteran Albert Huggins is not a huge drop off and actually is a more effective pass rusher should the Irish resort to throwing it every down as some folks have had to do.

Brent Venables has put together some tremendous defensive plans for the bowl season since coming to Clemson. It started with the defensive effort against LSU in the Peach Bowl, but future efforts against explosive offenses from Ohio State and Oklahoma were incredibly impressive. Even last year’s loss to Alabama had little to nothing to do with the defense who held the Tide to their lowest yardage and yards per play output of the season. They scored one touchdown on a blatant offensive pass interference. I have no reason to expect anything less than a terrific gameplan and a dialed in defense for this game. Notre Dame will have to make a lot of contested plays to pull this off, all while protecting the football.

Clemson offense vs. Notre Dame defense: The exciting thing about this stage is facing teams who usually don’t have a glaring hole on their team. Now, we know Oklahoma has a weak defense which has had to be buffered by one of the all time great offenses in college history, but by in large these are complete teams. The Irish are the most complete team Clemson has faced this season and have a defense who can keep them in the game. The question for them is just how much growth Trevor Lawrence has had, even in the layoff from the ACC title game to now. We haven’t seen Lawrence come into a game like this with this type of preparation time. He was splitting reps with Kelly Bryant before the trip to College Station early in the season.

Notre Dame has to bank on its excellent secondary being able to hold up so that they can get an extra hat in the box against the run. Can Julian Love shut down Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross? How much will we see both Ross and Higgins on the field together? How will the Irish deal with Hunter Renfrow? These are exciting questions to ponder heading into this game.

Most teams have attempted to attack Trevor Lawrence with aggressive blitzing from all over the place. Even the usually conservative Boston College defense resorted to exotic pressures in hopes of confusing Trevor Lawrence. Notre Dame is not a defense given to much blitzing beyond a five man pressure, but they might just send more guys as well. Clemson can counter this best by being efficient on first down. The Irish will have to be able to stop the standard inside zone and the counter H runs which are the bread and butter of the ScElliot offense.

As usual, it will be interesting to see what tweaks in formation or play action off of these staples have been put in now that the playoffs are here. There is little doubt, and the Irish players have admitted as much, that if the Tigers can get the run game going with Etienne and his posse, the Irish are going to lose. They have to keep Clemson under that magical 200 yards rushing number to have a chance to win. No team has been able to do this with six in the box this year, so I doubt the Irish will try that approach.

The Irish have a good front, as nearly all top 20 defenses do, and the Tigers cannot allow one DL to own a matchup. Texas A&M caused problems by whipping Justin Falcinelli with their NG. Boston College’s defense enjoyed Zach Allen getting the best of Tremayne Anchrum. Even then, the Tigers got to 28 and 27 points and left points on the table in the process. ND’s best bet is DL Jerry Tillery causing problems for Clemson’s right guard personnel. The Irish will look to get Clemson to third down and hope to win on the outside when Lawrence has to throw.

The weakest area for this year’s Clemson team has been third down and 7 or longer situations (which is usually the case for any offense). The 2016 Tigers were able to convert those at an absurd rate, especially in the playoffs, and it became a major factor in that title run. Can Lawrence become the assassin that Deshaun Watson was? God help Notre Dame and anyone else if that happens.

Special Teams: If the Irish have a true weak spot, this very well may be it. Michigan and Pitt were able to take kickoffs back for touchdowns and their punt coverage as been a little leaky in some games as well. Justin Yoon is still kicking for the Irish and is solid, but Clemson should have the potential to make a splash in this phase. Of course, we should all still hold our breath with the Tiger punting game. Greg Huegel has not been quite as good since returning from injury and is something to watch as well. I expect a fully rested B.T. Potter to blast all kickoffs out of the endzone.

Overall: Like I said before, Notre Dame is as complete a team as the Tigers have faced all year. They aren’t quite as explosive as Texas A&M, but they are certainly more disciplined and have a defense molded by Mike Elko, even if Elko is no longer there. Clemson will have to go out and beat the Irish because it is very unlikely they will beat themselves with stupid plays, busts in coverage, or penalties. However, Clemson is favored by nearly two touchdowns for a reason. That reason is the Tigers are just a much more explosive and deeper team. Clemson has no less than six guys (by a conservative estimate) who can go get a cheap touchdown on offense.

Clemson is also as battled tested as any team in the field could possibly be, a veteran of this stage. The Irish have the “name” but much less of the pedigree compared to the Tigers these last four years. Notre Dame has fewer paths to victory here than the Tigers. They will need Book to go over 300 yards and for their defense to not allow Clemson to run the ball. The higher the snap counts in this game, the more it will favor Clemson. Notre Dame will need to get off to a fast start, get some mistakes out of the Tigers, and then hold on, and hope Clemson can’t come back. This is the way their game with Michigan went.

I just can’t pick against the Tigers with Venables having this much time to get ready, even with Dexter out. The Irish can’t get to 28 points and therefore they can’t win this game.

Clemson 38-Notre Dame 20