Before we get into this preview, let’s acknowledge that it sucks to enter a game we’ve built to for years down our star quarterback. It sucks to play one of the best running games in the country without the spine of our run defense. It kinda sucks to be alive in America in 2020 sometimes. This isn’t what anyone had hoped for.
Everyone I know is some version of going through it, and while that’s grim there’s comfort in commiserating. Take care of yourself as much as you can, Saturday could get much rougher than most of us bargained for this summer.
Clemson is favored, but the margins are so slim as to be a toss up, and we’re going to South Bend. Vegas has Clemson favored by less than a touchdown and SP+ by a point and a half. Bill C only gives the Tigers a 53% chance at winning this and his system doesn’t fully account for the injuries they have on defense.
The Tigers will be without their starting MLB James Skalski, DT Tyler Davis, and Sam/Nickel Mike Jones Jr. The trio represent Clemson’s best run stuffing linebacker and leader of the defense, the best run stuffing and pocket collapsing tackle on the roster by far, and an up and coming first year starter at a schematically critical position. Additionally, they are going to be without defensive end Xavier Thomas for the first half as a result of a targeting penalty.
That couldn’t match up much worse against a Notre Dame offense designed to lean on elite run blocking, tight ends, and running backs under first year OC Tommy Rees. It’s worked so far, with PFF ranking the Irish the second best run blocking unit in the country.
After getting away from the run game last season, the Irish have doubled down on it in 2019. Some of this is from necessity. Notre Dame returned almost no experience at receiver, and they’ve appeared hampered by the strange offseason. Some of it is a decision to play to the strengths offered by breakout star RB Kyren Williams, an athletic and massive offensive line, and a handful of versatile tight ends.
Notre Dame has spent most of this season running the ball, controlling the clock, and leaning on an elite defense to keep the game in reach. Ian Book takes care of the ball, completes 60-70% of his passes, and adds some timely production in the run game. It hasn’t always been pretty (see: 12-7 vs. Louisville) but it’s worked.
The running game has done well with the shift from pin and pull blocking to running outside zone. With no starters under 6’5”, and only one under 300 lbs., ND’s offensive line is massive. They’ve been excellent using that length to screen off offensive linemen and move the line of scrimmage with timely double teams before getting up to the second level.
Combine that with multiple tight ends and the threat of a QB keep (either on a designed run or a play-action boot) and you’ve got quite a bit of misdirection. In addition to IZ and OZ , the offensive line and tight ends are perfectly capable of using their athleticism pulling on gap schemes like counter. Williams, for his part, is capable of nearly everything, a violent runner between the tackles with the speed and vision to break off big runs.
Backup RB’s Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister have nearly equaled Williams production (~600 yards vs. ~500) on twenty fewer carries. Ian Book isn’t a game changer, but you have to account for him on the ground, and Rees likes to use his QB’s legs for maximum effect on third down or at the goal line. His ability to run gives ND a much more dangerous offense when they go to the shotgun.
Just for fun, the Irish’s punter is averaging over ten yards per carry and they’re willing to call fakes from their own side of the field. Where the Notre Dame running game has struggled has been against defenses capable of getting into the backfield before their offensive line has time to work their combo blocks and get downfield. The maxim amongst defensive coaches is that penetration kills the zone.
Louisville and Duke have been able to muck games up by selling out against the run. The problem is that neither had the offense to keep up. Duke managed 13 points and Louisville a measly 7, but they’ve shown a way that the Irish can be slowed.
The problem is that selling out against the run opens you up to play-action. The misdirection and moving tight ends are helpful for the running game, but they really become deadly when Book is able to push the ball downfield against out of position defensive backs.
It also works when all the misdirection leads to one of ND’s skill position players getting lost by the defense. ND’s receivers might not have produced much, but they remain excellent athletes when they have the ball in their hands.
The Irish have been able to supplement a lack of production from the receiver position with production from the running backs (Williams is the teams second leading receiver) and tight ends Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble.
Mayer was one of the top tight end recruits in the country last year and has looked the part as a freshman, overtaking junior Tommy Tremble to become the team’s starter. Tremble is no slouch in his own right, and OC Tommy Rees generally keeps both on the field. They’re both versatile and athletic enough to present a matchup problem for most safeties and linebackers.
Backups Brock Wright and George Takacs are primarily on the field to block, but they help ND mask deficiencies at receiver with supersized personnel groupings. They also allow the Irish to use bunch or TE/wing formations to force defenses to account for massive fronts. Strangely, for such a run heavy team the Irish have been hit or miss in the red zone.
The Irish just can’t rely on much from the receivers this year. Leading wideout Javon McKinley has paired games of ninety three, fifty, and one-hundred-and-three yards with a duo of seven yard, one reception duds. He’s certainly a big play threat through the air, but also has yet to pull down a touchdown through the air this year.
Second leading receiver Ben Skowronek is even more mercurial, as the Northwestern transfer has only amassed five receptions while battling injury.
Rees has schemed the ball into his receivers’ hands in creative ways in the run game in an effort to get any production out of the unit. The timing between Book and his receivers has been off all year, and drops remain a chronic problem. What success Book has managed in the drop back passing game has often come via hitting receivers on hitches/comebacks against soft coverage, YAC on crossing routes, or screens and swings to the backs.
Book has done well at what he’s been asked to do, but there’s a reason that he’s maxed out at thirty-one passes in a game this season. If the Irish can’t move the ball on the ground the passing game, already limping along under the best of circumstances, falls apart without the advantages offered by defenses focused on the run.
Playing conservatively has helped Book keep mistakes down (only one interception on the year) but has also provided limited explosiveness. Snowronek, Williams, and McKinley are the only skill players with a reception of 30+ yards.
I’m also not sure how well the offensive line holds up if asked to pass block 35+ times a game. Louisville and Duke were able to get seven combined sacks against Book. Louisville got four despite Book throwing a paltry nineteen times.
Much like against the run game, Clemson’s best hope to win this game is that the defense is able to get pressure in the backfield. Without much to worry about from the wide receiver grouping, Venables will probably dial up aggressive blitzes against the pass and the run. Book is an experienced quarterback, though, and not easily fooled.
When Notre Dame has things working ideally on offense, they’re capable of grinding opponent fronts into submission. This offense would like nothing more than to hold the ball forty minutes per game by running the ball fifty times.
Whether or not Clemson is able to stop the run with a depleted defensive front is going to go a long way towards deciding whether or not they come out of Indiana unscathed. Notre Dame’s defense is elite, the offense doesn’t make unforced errors, and relies on the team strengths to mask a perimeter attack that’s still out of sync.
The Irish have an advantage on the line of scrimmage. The tight ends against Clemson’s backup linebackers worries me. Clemson has an obvious advantage at corner, but the way the Irish like to move the ball minimizes how much that matters.
The chess match between Rees, a 28-year-old rookie coordinator, and Venables will be fascinating. Whether the defense succeeds or fails could come down to a handful of blown assignments or tackles. The margin for error is nearly nonexistent.
Clemson 31 - Notre Dame 28