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How Good is the Notre Dame Defense?

A potentially elite unit faces its toughest test even with a new quarterback across the line

Boston College v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Welcome to the Game of the Century in the ACC. Literally, the highest ranked conference matchup ever thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime football membership for Notre Dame. Yet I already feel let down no matter the eventual result.

Maybe I’ve lost some of my blood lust, but I struggle to see much, if any, consequence for the game this weekend. Clemson lacks many of its absolute best players, and a Clemson win merely cements Notre Dame’s not exactly great perception; a Notre Dame win comes with a huge asterisk in the committee’s/voters’ eyes given all the backups and freshmen Clemson throws out on Saturday. That, plus the very likely reality that a Notre Dame win does nothing but earn them a rematch against a presumably healthier Clemson in December when there are real stakes.

So there’s absolutely zero to lose if you’re Clemson. Win and it’s no big deal, just cruise along to the playoff. Lose and you get an obvious mulligan with voters and an all but certain rematch for the ACC title. Notre Dame is desperate for a win of any type, though, no matter how hollow it may ring given Clemson’s current state. They’ll throw the proverbial kitchen sink at Clemson to chase it.

Boston College was the perfect opponent for DJ Uiagalelei’s first serious action. Not because of the drama which ultimately unfolded, but because of Boston College’s defensive philosophy. Man cover 1 is about the easiest base defense read there is, and the zone counterpart from the same single high safety look is soft cover 3 — again, a pretty simple defense to read. I thought BC might try to mix it up more to confuse the young QB, but they largely saved fire zones and pressure looks for 3rd downs, as is their tendency and identity. No matter the situation, though, DJ ate those blitzes alive.

Notre Dame is a different animal defensively. They have a solid, experienced line and a freak at safety whom they like to let roam. Most of all, they’re effective with disguises and all your standard zone pressures, which should be much, MUCH harder for a younger QB to process and beat.

In a game where each defense will have the same focus on shutting down the run and putting the game in the hands of the respective opposing QBs (each QB is a “question mark” for radically different reasons: lack of talent on one side and lack of experience on the other), we’re looking here at what the Irish defense will do specifically, and where it can be beaten.

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea followed former coordinator Mike Elko from Wake before Elko left to take a job in Aggieland. Lea is philosophically similar to the old Elko defenses with a lot of disguises — mainly late safety movement on standard downs — though he has made the rather semantic shift from Elko’s predominant 4-2-5 to a blended 3-4 front with a stand-up hybrid end.

It’s his disguised coverages that will be the real test for DJ. For all we’ve complained about the Clemson offensive line this year, they’ve at least held up well in pass protection, and the Irish don’t boast a great pass rush to begin with. It’s the late safety movement and zone pressures which will make or break the Irish efforts to force the freshman quarterback into a mistake, and where Clemson may ultimately win or lose this side of the game.

The Elko/Lea school of defense is probably the closest we see to the Venables school on a semi-regular basis (at least in recent history, given Clemson’s faced one or both of them every year for the last few) when it comes to pressure looks which may or may not be pressure, and late movement into deceptive zones which are designed to make a quarterback think too much.

Does a fake LB bullet blitz look familiar? Absolutely. Pressure looks — real or fake — are Venables and Lea calling cards. We even see ND dropping into cover 4 (presumably based off what we can see on camera). It worked, with Georgia Tech QB Sims thinking he had a hot read against a blitz, only to find more in coverage than he expected. He had to hold the ball, tuck, and finally throw away. This is what we can expect from both defenses Saturday, and not what either offense wants.

Below we see the aforementioned freak at boundary safety — Kyle Hamilton — whom I expect will probably have his eyes on Etienne more often than not given weak-side “Buck” linebacker Shayne Simon’s performance to date:

This is an undisguised, soft cover 3. Normally your boundary or free safety has more deep coverage responsibilities, but Hamilton makes his living flying the alley and playing more like your typical strong safety in underneath coverage and run support. This is where ND’s compensations for Etienne out of the backfield can be taken advantage of: it will lead to single coverage outside on Clemson’s boundary targets, or when Hamilton is deep in coverage, leave Etienne on Simon in man under or a flat cornerback zone in cover 2. Either of the latter two coverages would be great news for the Clemson offense in their quest to exploit the inherent skill mismatches.

Hamilton flying the alley is a major tendency this season, to the point it is the norm, and this late in the year we won’t see quite as much “holding back the playbook” from opponents like Tony Elliott does for the Clemson offense, for instance. ND will send him to the line whenever they like the situation, even firing off the edge with Isaiah Simmons-like explosiveness and versatility:

If I’m Lea though, I try not to stack the box or send frequent run blitzes like most defenses have done against Clemson thus far. Clemson can counter anything Notre Dame tries defensively except the Irish containing the Clemson run game without overwhelming defensive numbers. I’d bet on my defensive line holding the point of attack against an abysmal run-blocking Clemson OL, using my back end to disguise pressures and coverages alike to confuse DJ. Let the ND DL beat the Clemson OL in the run game without extra bodies on the defensive front, and Clemson has an uphill climb trying to isolate Etienne, Rodgers, Ladson, et al. against the weaknesses on the ND perimeter.

It’s imperative for the Irish to hedge against Clemson’s speed and skill out wide, even though we’ve documented the boundary receivers’ struggles ad nauseam here, and conventional wisdom says stop Etienne above all else. There’s a massive talent and speed gap out wide on both sides of the ball, and Notre Dame needs to fear Clemson’s potential there even if the production thus far doesn’t suggest it. Ladson, in particular, has speed ND rarely sees and cannot match, and their corners are weaknesses without two deep safeties providing outside help. And with Hamilton roaming underneath, two deep safeties aren’t the norm:

Based on the film I’ve watched, Clemson has the schemes and talent to beat this Notre Dame defense even without Trevor Lawrence, unless the Irish can stuff the run with an uncharacteristically light box. I’m interested to see if Lea makes the same bet on his defensive front and protects his corners, or if he comes out aggressively to take away Etienne. Show pressure, drop into 7 and 8 bodied zones, and make DJ hold the ball if you’re Notre Dame. Send too much pressure and Clemson will get Etienne and Ladson/Powell in salivating matchups.

Make no mistake: as good as DJ was against Boston College, man cover 1 and soft cover 3 zones are not difficult reads, and are especially favorable if the offense has a talent advantage to go with proper recognition. Notre Dame may not match Clemson’s recruited talent level even with Clemson’s current depth chart, but they’re far more experienced, proven, and plenty stressful for quarterbacks to beat.

Worse than even the Trevor Lawrence’s absence, it’s now confirmed that Clemson will lack Tyler Davis and Mike Jones, Jr along with James Skalski. Davis is the most important player on defense and Jones was off to a fantastic start replacing Isaiah Simmons. Notre Dame has to move the ball up the middle (well, on outside zones) or not at all on the Tigers, and now they have a MUCH easier ability to do so. This alone is why I think the Irish have a real chance now instead of just a prayer.

A few weeks ago I derisively said, “First team to 20 wins,” knowing quite well that would likely mean Clemson in a blowout, since I have little respect for Ian Book or the Irish perimeter players providing any sort of threat — I had little question Clemson could stuff the run with Davis back from the knee injury sustained in the opener.

Then Davis was injured in practice a few weeks ago, Jones pulled a hamstring on a fumble return, and Clemson has an arm tied behind its back on both sides of the ball now (even more on defense than an offense missing the forthcoming #1 overall pick). I have to hedge without Davis to blow up the line seemingly every play — as good as Bryan Bresee has been, Davis is the only true nose with elite talent. ND’s best hope for sustained offensive success is to control the ball with its OL and sneak play action when they can. No Tyler Davis makes that possible.

Clemson’s chances to blow it open on offense likely hinge on Ladson or Powell stepping up, but it’s how ND defends Etienne that will determine their opportunities for success. Clemson’s outside receiver performance to date suggests you can handle them in man coverage, but that means a linebacker has Etienne — ask BC how foolish that is. Zones or spies around Etienne on the perimeter will create winnable matchups for the receivers, whom for all their struggles still outclass the rather unimpressive ND corners.

ND will do everything possible to take away Etienne, and we have to account for at least some success in doing so despite their struggles at Buck linebacker. That opens possibilities out wide (including Etienne on boundary go routes from field receiver like last week). Rodgers and Powell have performed well, but they aren’t Clemson’s usual freak perimeter threats downfield. Without someone to stretch it out wide, Etienne can be limited in the flats, and, let’s face it, we know damn well he won’t find much running room inside. Ladson’s speed has to shine here and Elliott has to get creative with more ways to get Etienne to the edge.

This game couldn’t come at a worse time for Clemson, but I’ve found optimism in two facets: DJ showed the necessary poise and decision-making skills last week, and Venables will do everything possible to make Ian Book beat him (something Venables has always done quite well unless you’re Joe Burrow) and not the Irish run game.

Many will point to how battle-tested Clemson is from a half-decade playoff streak and all the big wins to complement their talent advantage. But Clemson is far younger this year even if its missing veterans and stars were in the lineup, and we can’t put those intangibles overwhelmingly in Clemson’s favor like usual. Given all Clemson lacks, particularly in the middle of its defense against a plodding offense, I think the Irish can sit on the ball just enough while their defense puts the game in DJ’s hands, with a frenetic game plan bent on forcing him into mistakes.

I’ve gone back and forth on a pick since the Davis news. With Davis I would still like Clemson by at least two scores. Without him, I’m completely at a loss. I want to lean toward Notre Dame’s experience and urgency against Clemson’s B squad, but I still like Clemson’s ability to plan and get up for the bigger games. If this comes down to which staff has the best game plan and pushes the right buttons, every Clemson and ND fan alike knows which side that will be. Elliott will have new wrinkles and Venables shines brightest against one-dimensional offenses.

Clemson 27, Notre Dame 20*

*If I’m right, great! If not, Clemson gets a rematch and BLOOD GAME in Charlotte with no change in the stakes. Dumb as this sounds in a November contest between #1 and #4, this game doesn’t truly matter for Clemson’s ACC or national title title hopes. Yes, this is a preemptive coping mechanism since I might flip back to ND by kickoff.