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Clemson at Notre Dame Preview: Q&A With One Foot Down

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We partnered with Patrick Sullivan of One Foot Down to give you an in-depth preview of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest game of the year is here and the Tigers will be without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is still completing COVID-19 safety protocol. Fortunately, the Tigers survived the first of two games without him last Saturday when they came back from an 18-point deficit to beat Boston College. QB DJ Uiagalelei’s strong performance against BC lends confidence to the Tigers chances in South Bend against what will likely be the toughest defense they see this year.

To help us preview the big game, we connected with Patrick Sullivan, the editor of One Foot Down.

Ryan: Obviously the news that Trevor Lawrence will not play is huge. What impact do you feel it has on the Irish’s odds to win the game? Does it make this more of a must win for Notre Dame or do you feel it is still reasonable to avenge a loss in the ACCCG even if they lose at home to a Lawrence-less Tigers?

Patrick: I think it fairly significantly increases their odds of winning, at least relative to before, just because Clemson is going from a junior All-World QB who’s been starting for 3 years to a true freshman who’s played non-garbage time minutes in precisely one game. The Irish defense is definitely their biggest strength, and this year’s group has plenty of veteran leadership and talent, especially up front and on the back end. They’ve gotta be excited about getting to play a freshman, albeit still a 5-star freshman, which has to give some of them PTSD remembering the 2018 Cotton Bowl.

With all that said, obviously this doesn’t suddenly make Clemson a bad team. I think the Tigers still have a major talent advantage over ND at most positions, and as long as Travis Etienne is out there, the Irish have their hands completely full just in trying to corral him, let alone the other talented skill guys like Amari Rodgers, Braden Galloway, Davis Allen, etc. Add in that D.J. Uiagalelei is a 6’4”, 250-lb freak who definitely didn’t seem intimidated by the spotlight last week against BC, and there’s still PLENTY to be scared of from an ND perspective.

The other side of the ball could end up being the key here, though. The Irish defense, even if they play pretty well against the freshman QB, might not be able to slow Clemson down enough to make up for the fact that the Notre Dame offense will likely struggle to score points against the Clemson D, especially if the Tigers are able to bottle up Kyren “Bellyman” Williams and Chris Tyree. I’m not confident Ian Book and Co. have the firepower to keep up otherwise.

This is absolutely a must-win game for Notre Dame. If they can’t take advantage of not having to face the future #1 NFL Draft pick in a home game in November, how in the world can they beat Lawrence and the Tigers in the ACC title game in December? That seems like a fantasy to me — I think the Irish need to win this one, somehow keep it close in the ACC title game, and hope they get enough help elsewhere to snag the #4 seed in the CFP.

Ryan: RB Kyren Williams has been great this season. Do you expect Clemson to focus on slowing him down and forcing QB Ian Book to beat them through the air? What defensive strategies have been most effective against the Irish this season?

Patrick: Bellyman has indeed been fantastic this season, and really such a pleasant surprise considering he only played a few plays in 2019 before being redshirted. There was no real word about him seizing any sort of significant role until this summer, when suddenly the reports coming out of camp were that he had won the starting job — most of us were expecting a running-back-by-committee situation for 2020.

In terms of Clemson’s focus on defense, I am positive it’s going to be to shut down Williams and 5-star frosh Tyree on early downs, forcing 3rd-and-long situations, then putting some serious pressure on Book while containing him to the pocket, forcing him to make quick decisions under duress. That strategy will be extremely effective, as Book is best when he can comfortably move within, and outside of, the pocket to either find open receivers or tuck it and run. If Clemson makes it tough for him to do that, it’ll be a long day for the Irish.

Louisville was able to lock down the pass rush part of this strategy well, sacking Ian Book 4 times as he managed a meager 11-for-19 passing while throwing for 106 yards in that ugly 12-7 win a few weeks ago. Unfortunately for Louisville, once the Irish doubled down on running the ball in the second half, Williams ended up grinding the clock down and running for 127 yards on 5.1 ypc, with Book adding 12 carries for 47 yards and the game-deciding touchdown. If Clemson can do a better job than the Cardinals at slowing that running attack down — and you gotta think they can — they’ll be able to pretty much shut down the Irish offense.

Ryan: Brian Kelly has had a remarkably successful coaching career, yet isn’t held in the same regard as other elite coaches. He took Cincinnati to an Orange Bowl and a Sugar Bowl. At Notre Dame, he has posted a winning record in all but one of his 11 seasons. He’s posted 10+ wins in four of the last five seasons and looks likely to do it again despite having to drop one regular season game due to COVID-19 rescheduling. Although Notre Dame lost handily, they also reached a National Championship game and finished ranked 4th (AP) in 2012 and reached the Cotton Bowl semifinal and finished ranked 5th (AP) in 2018. Is Brian Kelly an elite coach? Does he get the credit he deserves outside of Notre Dame circles? Is his success appreciated by Notre Dame fans?

Patrick: I would personally place Brian Kelly in the second tier of coaches in college football (or 3rd if you want to put Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney on their own level). He lifted this program out of the depths caused by the Davie/Willingham/Weis years, and he’s a very good program-builder and a great choice to run a well-oiled, solid program that beats the teams it should beat and occasionally plays its way into a top-tier bowl game.

But Kelly certainly isn’t in the realm of Saban, Swinney, or Urban Meyer (pre-retirement), and honestly probably isn’t on the same level of a Lincoln Riley or Ryan Day or Kirby Smart, because his teams just aren’t super competitive against the best of the best. I personally don’t believe Notre Dame will ever truly contend for a title until another coach steps in and brings the program up onto that level — Kelly has taken the team as far as he can.

Kelly’s ND teams’ performances in NY6-or-better postseason games speak for themselves: 0-3 record in the 2012 BCS National Championship, 2016 Fiesta Bowl, and 2018 Cotton Bowl, outscored 116-45 overall, with an average point differential of -24 points. Meanwhile, his actual bowl victories aren’t exactly inspiring: Sun, Pinstripe, Music City, Citrus, Camping World.

Furthermore, even including the regular season, Brian Kelly hasn’t won a ton of “big” games. By some quick calculations I did, his ND teams are neither particularly good at winning big games in the moment, nor at winning games that ended up being big games when the dust settled:

Outside of ND circles, I think Kelly is pretty fairly thought of, bordering on the side of slightly overrated. He’s a good coach, wins a vast majority of the time (which shouldn’t be overlooked, that isn’t easy), and deserves credit for winning with ND’s academic standards. But looking at the above records against ranked teams, it’s tough to argue he’s one of the top coaches in the country.

When it comes to Notre Dame fans who aren’t me, I would say most are pretty happy with Kelly — they appreciate the things you mentioned in the question, especially winning 10+ games in 4 of the past 5 seasons and delivering undefeated regular seasons in 20% of his years at the helm of this program. However, there’s definitely a grumpy, older faction of fans who hate Brian Kelly, won’t settle for anything less than competing for national titles on a regular basis, and think ND needs to move on if they want to win a championship. That last piece, I agree with.

Ryan: Has the race for the ACC title this season softened the pro-independence stance which I believe you held in the past? If Notre Dame actually joined the ACC years down the line and did so with one other team, who would you want that other team to be? Navy? Cincinnati? Someone else?

Patrick: No, that really hasn’t changed — ND values its independence and individual influence over the college football landscape too much, and if anything, this season in the ACC has shown Irish fans how uninteresting conference play can be. The Irish have played teams with a combined record of 12-26 so far (12-20 removing ND’s wins), and ND is pretty much by default the second-best team in the conference, with very little other competition for that spot (basically just Miami now?).

Under normal circumstances in 2020, the Irish would have instead played their typical slate of USC, Stanford, and Navy, had that November match-up with Clemson, and then also had a game against Wisconsin at Lambeau and a home game to start the year against Arkansas, which would have been fun. This hasn’t exactly been the most exciting season to join the conference, considering what the initial plan was.

If ND WERE to join the ACC with another team for some ungodly reason, I’d definitely NOT pick Navy. Like a growing contingent of Irish fans, I am sick of that lose-lose game every year on the Notre Dame schedule, and truly believe Notre Dame has repaid the debt it owed to the Naval Academy for helping keep ND afloat during WWII. I’d love for them to move on.

Instead, if Cincinnati were to have a couple more seasons like this one, I think they would be a pretty solid candidate to join with the Irish. Other interesting ideas could be UCF, Appalachian State, West Virginia if they decide they’re not a true Big 12 team, or Maryland coming back from the Big Ten (not as much for football reasons, but for sports like basketball).

Hell, or we could get wild and bring in someone like the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, who are just fun as hell, or reel in fellow independent BYU and just shatter the geographical concept of “Atlantic Coast” even further than what adding a northern Indiana school would accomplish there.

Ryan: Many feel that Ian Book hasn’t improved much since the 2018 season when he took over as the starter and led the Irish to an undefeated regular season. They say he is a good game manager, but isn’t good enough to win a playoff game, let alone two of them. What are your thoughts on this criticism?

Patrick: As the driving force behind the offense/team winning a playoff game or two, I wholeheartedly agree. Ian Book has some major limitations in terms of raw talent, decision making, and accuracy, and if you’re asking him to carry the team to a title, he’s not going to be capable of doing that.

But, with the right scheme/talent around him and a good defense on the other side of the ball, I think Book has the leadership, veteran savvy, creativity, and athleticism to make enough plays to win a title as a game manager.

Obviously having a top-flight QB is a typical characteristic of most CFP teams — just look at last year’s group of Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Jalen Hurts — but it’s not a necessity at all in winning a championship. Georgia got to the brink of winning a title in 2017-2018 with a freshman Jake Fromm at QB, and Alabama won it all in 2015-2016 with Jake Coker under center. You can’t tell me either of those guys were significantly better than Ian Book is.

Of course, Coker had Derrick Henry, Calvin Ridley, O.J. Howard, and an Alabama defense helping him win his title, and Fromm had Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, D’Andre Swift, Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley, and a top-flight UGA defense backing him up, so it’s not like that kind of QB can do it with just any old supporting cast. However, I think if you give Ian Book a setup like one of those two had, he could also take the team where it wants to be — competing with the best of the best for a national championship once again.

Ryan: Notre Dame’s defense is among the best in the country. Clemson will of course be without QB Trevor Lawrence, but DJ Uiagalelei is better than your average second string QB. What’s Clemson’s best bet against this stout Notre Dame defense?

Patrick: I think the Notre Dame corners (TaRiq Bracy, Nick McCloud, Clarence Lewis) are a bit susceptible — they’ve been good so far this year (ND’s secondary is 7th in pass efficiency defense, 11th in pass yards per attempt), but they’re still largely unproven against good competition and I don’t trust them nearly as much as I trust a few other position groups on Clark Lea’s defense. If the Tigers can get them in 1-on-1 situations, Uiagalelei should be able to make them pay with some decent throws.

Additionally, I think Travis Etienne is going to be the biggest problem for ND on Saturday (hot take, I know). I could see him doing some damage up the middle against a deep but not elite group of Irish defensive tackles (even if he wasn’t suuuper effective on the ground against BC last week), as well as really burning the Irish when he manages to get outside the tackles, especially via screens/swing passes.

I’d really only say there are two guys on the Notre Dame defense in Etienne’s universe athletically (Kyle Hamilton, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah), and they can’t be everywhere Etienne is at all times. I think Etienne will break a big play or two (or several) just by getting out into space and being stronger and faster than most of the ND defense.

Bonus: I think Uigalelei’s size and his legs could be a game-changer, definitely in short yardage/red zone situations, but also just in terms of whether the ND pass rush is able to bring him down. Defensive ends Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Daelin Hayes, and Isaiah Foskey are good enough to get into the backfield occasionally on Saturday, but if Uigalelei’s strength and running ability allow him to escape their grasp, that could be the difference between forcing a punt and Clemson extending a drive that eventually ends in a touchdown. For a defense that’s thrived this year in 3rd down defense (#4 in the country in 3rd down conversion %) and for a team that will need every stop they can muster, that would be killer.

Ryan: Thank you to Patrick for joining us. Be sure to hop on over to One Foot Down to read the other half of this Q&A.