The Irish and Tigers enter the Cotton Bowl undefeated and with a lot in common. Both teams changed quarterbacks midseason and caught fire against mostly underwhelming schedules. Clemson’s competitors in the Atlantic Division had the floor fall out from underneath them, while the Coastal was won by a Pitt team that is still in danger of going .500. Notre Dame’s open relationship with the ACC left them exposed to the same things Clemson went through (the Irish and Tigers have 4 common opponents in Pitt, FSU, Wake, and Syracuse), and not playing a ranked team out of Stanford/USC/FSU is more about those programs than you.
Clemson changed quarterbacks because they wanted to get a more talented player onto the field. That was not the case for Notre Dame and Ian Book, a three-star redshirt sophomore who took the job from the more highly regarded Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush was not getting it done in the passing game, although he is still with the program and won the FSU game. Wimbush and Kelly Bryant are considered top transfer QB candidates, because that’s just how college football works right now.
Running back Dexter Williams is one of few running backs as explosive as Etienne. Given space he can generate something out of nothing. His return from suspension was as important to the Notre Dame offense as the QB switch was. Williams is often making something out of nothing.
None of the Irish RB’s are particularly efficient, but Williams is able to generate 6.6 yards per carry because his big plays have been so explosive. If he gets a seam in Notre Dame’s preferred outside zone or ISO runs he can make safeties look foolish.
Book tosses in a handful of carries a game, but mostly uses the threat of him carrying the ball to force defenders to commit or to get out of a bind.
Notre Dame’s offensive line is better than it has any right to be. On top of losing the left side of last years line in the first round of the NFL draft Notre Dame lost their OL coach in the offseason. Then they had their preseason All-American right guard go down for the season against Stanford. All in all Notre Dame has had to start seven lineman and play a dozen.
This turnover has taken a toll and that the ND line is still functioning (and pretty well) is a testament to their recruiting and development. Having a talented and veteran center in Sam Mustipher can’t hurt. However, the Irish don’t open holes well in the running game, and a lot of their low sack rate is a result of Book’s quick trigger and ability to extend plays.
The OL is somewhat hidden by the scheme, because for the most part the downfield passes come on play-action. If the Irish get forced into third and long things can get ugly.
Converted receiver Jafar Armstrong has shown potential as a backup running back, and if he’s healthy, Armstrong adds another element to the offense. Williams is a good receiver for a running back. Armstrong can split out wide and burn corners one play, then come into the backfield and take a handoff the next.
When you combine this with the versatility of Notre Dame’s tight ends, offensive coordinator Chip Long can give a lot of looks without having to substitute. Like pretty much everyone nowadays, the Irish operate mostly out of 11 or 12 personnel, usually from the shotgun or the pistol.
The receivers are (minus waterbug slot Chris Finke) massive and experienced. Miles Boykin (#81) in particular is a star, averaging 15 yards per catch while leading the team in targets, catches, touchdowns and yards. Chase Claypool gives the Irish another big body (both he and Boykin are listed at 6’4” 225+ lbs.) though he is not as explosive as Boykin after the catch.
Tight end Alizé Mack is quicker than anyone his size should be, and his ability to play in the backfield, out wide, or in line allows Notre Dame to put defenses into bad matchups. Backup tight end Cole Kmet can block and run routes pretty well, making the Irish 12 personnel a headache.
Book’s patience and creativity allow him to string plays along like a veteran point guard at times. His biggest strength is distributing the ball on short to intermediate throws off of run action and letting his more explosive skill players get yards. Notre Dame also loves to use rub routes to create a pick, a strategy Clemson fans are all aware of. The Irish do this in a variety of ways, such as this slant/flat combination.
The Irish also like to run crossing routes to get receivers open, such as this one where the tight end splitting wide gets a receiver matched up on a linebacker. Combine this with RPO fades and post routes, and Book is usually able to throw downfield well enough to keep safeties from creeping. His downfield accuracy isn’t the best, and gets significantly worse under pressure provided you can keep him in the pocket.
Virginia Tech’s game plan for the Irish might give us a preview of what to expect from Venables. Bud Foster’s defense was able to hold Notre Dame to seventeen points at the half, giving the Irish only a one point lead. The Hokies did this by loading the box against Williams, aggressively jumping underneath throws and sending pressure to force Book to make plays on third and long. What Virginia Tech was doing was forcing Book to throw his receivers open, instead of allowing Chip Long to scheme them open. A lot of Notre Dame’s success this year was against overmatched defenses which couldn’t afford to play aggressively. Well coached teams can figure out what’s coming and react.
Things fell apart in the third quarter (97 yard run by Williams, 40 yard scramble drill touchdown for Book + Boykins) but there’s reason to think Clemson can do it better. The Hokies defense was impossibly young (an ESPN graphic reminded the viewer that 16 of 22 players on the two deep were underclassmen). An inevitable result of that youth was that the Hokies gave up more explosive plays than almost anyone in the country.
Clemson’s quarters based defense emerged from Bud Foster’s defenses. There’s plenty of reason to think they can execute his plan for longer than a half and it fits Venables inclination to send pressure.
Notre Dame relies on receivers and running backs making plays with the ball in their hand, with quarterback Ian Book doing a good job distributing the ball behind an offensive line that isn’t quite up to the Irish’s usual high standards. A lot of this game will come down to how well a rotation of tackles (and Wilkins, whose motor and stamina just became a lot more important) holds up against the run. I don’t think the Irish’s tackles can consistently hang with Clemson’s defensive ends, but Williams is a north south runner who doesn’t need a lot of chances to do damage. Tackling from the safeties will be key to keeping Williams in check, as well as keeping the run-action, screens and YAC the Irish rely on to move the ball in the passing game from breaking for big gains. Notre Dame isn’t likely to string together long drives against the Tigers, but they take advantage of mistakes and are adept at using shifts to create mismatches. All it takes is a handful of big plays turning into scores to change the game. The Irish’s defense might be good enough to take care of the rest. I still expect Clemson to win, but this should be a close game.