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Back to Texas: An Early Look at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like yesterday Clemson exited the team plane in College Station with its cowboy hats as it faced off against Texas A&M. Now it’s time to break them out yet again as the Tigers head to Dallas for another trip to the College Football Playoff to face the Notre Fighting Irish in a rematch from the historic 2015 monsoon game in Death Valley.

As many expected entering the season, Dabo Swinney managed to bring Clemson back to the College Football Playoffs yet again for the fourth straight year. The Tigers are massive favorites to make it back to the National Championship Game.

Just as they were in 2015, Notre Dame is a great team that matches up well with Clemson on both sides of the ball. Both employ aggressive, physical defenses that prefer man defense and offenses that underwent quarterback changes early in the season to better stretch the field in the passing game. Of course, both also endured a couple of close calls during the regular season that could’ve derailed their playoff hopes.

For Notre Dame, their victory hinges on whether they can foster enough offense against arguably the best defense in all of college football, especially against a front four that has lived up to its preseason hype. The Fighting Irish have ridden behind junior quarterback Ian Book, who they opted for over Brandon Wimbush due to the latter’s struggles as a passer. Book put up a solid 2018 season, throwing for 2,468 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and only six interceptions while completing 70.4% of his passes. While not possessing an elite arm, Book is a balanced quarterback who doesn’t make a ton of mistakes and stretches the field enough to make peeking safeties pay for their mistakes. His 162.5 passer rating and adjusted QBR of 83.7 speak further to his efficiency. Like Lawrence, his ability to escape the pocket and pick up yards shouldn’t be underestimated, either. While he’s had a solid season, Book will have to find creative ways to stave off a Clemson defense ranked second in the country in sacks (45).

On the ground, Notre Dame boasts a pair of talented backs in Dexter Williams and Tony Jones, Jr., though the former operates as the primary feature back in Notre Dame’s offense. Williams has rushed for 941 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Clemson has faced its share of strong running teams during the regular season (i.e. Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh), and must do so yet again. At 5’11, 215 pounds, Williams has been a workhorse back for the Fighting Irish, and has the speed to get the edge while running between the tackles. He has faced his share of adversity with issues off the field and family challenges regarding his ill mother. Despite that, he has overcome all of it to reach this moment. Behind Williams, Notre Dame ranks 49th in rushing offense with an average of 190.5 yards per game. While Clemson’s front seven ranks third in the country in rushing yards allowed (93 yards per game), they can’t afford to miss many tackles and have him reach the second level of their defense.

In the passing game, the Fighting Irish are led by a steady trio of receivers in Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Chris Finke. Boykin is the team leader in receptions (54), yards (803), and touchdowns (8). Claypool (48 rec, 631 yards, four touchdowns) and Finke (47 rec, 547 yards, two touchdowns) both provide great complimentary pieces to Boykin. The Fighting Irish makes great use of their tight ends in the passing game, and Alize Mack (34 rec, 349 yards, three touchdowns) could be their secret weapon to expose Clemson’s safeties and linebackers in coverage, especially in the middle of the field. In a similar fashion to its run game, the Fighting Irish rank 31st in passing yards (265.6 yards per game), and will be going against a Clemson secondary that, while ranking 18th in passing yards allowed (183.8 yards per game), has struggled at times, especially against efficient quarterbacks who have managed to take advantage of two aggressive safeties.

On defense, there’s no doubting what the primary plan will be: contain Etienne while forcing Lawrence into difficult situations in a big-time environment. The Fighting Irish rank 19th in total defense and have been consistent all season long. They boast a 32nd ranked pass defense, surrendering 198 yards per game through the air. This is in no small part thanks to Julian Love, Alohi Gilman, and a host of other playmakers the Fighting Irish host in the backend. Like Clemson, the Irish love to play a lot of man defense and leave their defensive backs in single coverage. Against the University of Southern California, which displayed skilled, fast athletes on the outside, Notre Dame’s secondary struggled to keep up in single coverage early on, which allowed the Trojans to make their game competitive. Against a team like Clemson who displays more offensive consistency and the same type of athleticism, the Fighting Irish will be hard pressed to succeed if its secondary can’t win their one-on-one battles in single coverage.

Meanwhile on the front seven, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery and linebacker Drue Tranquill headline a front seven that finished the season ranked 30th in run defense, allowing 133.5 yards per game. Clemson is no stranger to physical front sevens with high-caliber talent, and having faced a defensive team like Boston College late in the season should serve the offense well in handling the front seven. After early season struggles, Clemson’s offensive line came on as the season progressed, especially in the run game, where they rank fifth in rushing offense with 259.8 yards per game on the ground. Notre Dame must count on consistent defensive pressure and the inexperience of a freshman quarterback in Trevor Lawrence to guide them to victory.

Unlike 2015, there is no monsoon or rainstorm to play through, and it will be nice and dry. Notre Dame is likely to study plenty of film from the Syracuse, Texas A&M, and South Carolina games to attack Clemson’s defense and find ways to negate the pass rush. Expect some RPOs, an emphasis on a quicker passing game, bouts of tempo offense, and routes focused on the middle of the field to isolate Clemson’s safeties and linebackers in coverage. On defense, expect plenty of film study from Boston College, the defense on Clemson’s schedule that had the most success against containing Travis Etienne and putting pressure on Lawrence. With its faith in the secondary, Notre Dame is likely to follow a similar game plan in bringing pressure from a multitude of different looks to force Lawrence to make mistakes.

Much of this will be new for Notre Dame as it makes its first foray into the College Football Playoff, with head coach Brian Kelly looking to make up for his embarrassing show in 2012 against the Crimson Tide. The Fighting Irish have the talent to pull off the upset as underdogs against the Tigers, but it will depend upon Book’s ability to consistently challenge a veteran Clemson defense that still contains its best pieces from a 2016 championship team.