Last week got crazy, which was pretty fitting for a Halloween weekend. Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID on Thursday, and Clemson fans had to hold their collective breath as the team overcame multiple things symptomatic of upsets behind true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei’s epic first starting performance.
The Tigers remain shorthanded heading into this week’s monumental showdown with now ACC title contending Notre Dame. There will be no Lawrence, no Tyler Davis, no James Skalski, and no Mike Jones. There will also be no Xavier Thomas for the first half and who knows if we will see Justin Foster at all this season.
This game has all the juice you would expect, including a visit from ESPN’s Gameday. The Tigers will get the rare opportunity to play on NBC in primetime, since it is an Irish home game. NBC plucked Jac Collingsworth from the ACC Network and has added Tony Dungy as the color analyst for this season. I’ve actually enjoyed Dungy’s take on things on the games I’ve watched this season. The Irish haven’t seen the Tigers since taking a 30-3 beat down in the 2018 College Football Playoff, and this is the Tigers’ first trip to South Bend since 1979.
Back then, Clemson was the upstart program looking to gain credibility against an established superpower of college football. This time, Notre Dame is trying to show it truly belongs among the elite of the new era. The Irish have failed on this stage time and time again since the 1993 season. They couldn’t beat Alabama, they couldn’t beat UGA, and they haven’t been able to beat Clemson. They have to feel their time is now, particularly considering the guys Clemson misses in this game.
Clemson defense vs. Notre Dame offense: I have to admit I’d feel a ton better about this side of the ball if Tyler Davis could play. Notre Dame has the best OL Clemson is going to see and is as equipped as anyone to hold up against the patented Venables pressure and disruption. Ian Book gives Notre Dame a veteran quarterback who is much less likely to make the kind of mistakes we sometimes see opposing quarterbacks make against Clemson. Book is crafty in the pocket and can frustrate your pass rush. Clemson let Phil Jurkovec get loose for some third down scrambles last week, especially in the first half, and will have to be better this time around.
The Tigers should have an advantage on the perimeter in the same way they did against Miami a month ago. Notre Dame’s WR corps don’t scare you, and frankly I’d rank Boston College’s unit ahead of theirs by a comfortable margin. Clemson should be able to trust Derion Kendrick and Andrew Booth, whom I would expect to take the lion’s share of the corner snaps in this game, in man coverage outside with little to no help. This will be important in allowing the safeties to help deal with the Irish run game and strong tight end corps.
Kyren Williams has been very good this year, rushing for 600 yards in six games. If Louisville could lock up the Irish on the outside, Clemson surely should be able to as well. This Irish offense is well equipped to play from ahead and shorten the game more than Boston College’s was. Clemson can ill afford to let the Irish race out to a lead in the same fashion the Eagles did last week. However, if the Irish have to play catch up or keep up, the advantages shift in favor of Clemson’s defense.
First down is going to be extra critical this week. If the Irish can get 4-5 yards on first down, that will allow their offense to operate much more comfortably. I fully expect to see Clemson be as aggressive against the run as we have seen all season. It is imperative to make Book win this game with his arm. Book was able to torch Pittsburgh, but the Panther corners were quite frankly terrible playing the ball and the woeful Panther offense left their defense on the field the entire game.
I may be proven wrong, but I’d rank the 2015 Irish and 2018 Irish offenses ahead of this year’s unit. I thought those other teams were as good or better at RB and had more dangerous outside skill, from Will Fuller in 2015 to Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool in 2018. Their offensive line was elite in 2015 and pretty close to that in 2018. This year’s line is strong as well, but I’m not sure how well we can judge it based on the defenses the Irish have seen so far. Clemson is by far the best defensive front, even short handed, that the Irish have seen this season. This game is going to be won or lost in the trenches, barring some crazy turnovers or special teams plays to offset it. This game will very likely be the lowest scoring game Clemson plays in this season.
Clemson offense vs. Notre Dame defense: Clemson’s offense should be closer to full strength this week vs. last. Even though Trevor Lawrence is out, Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata are poised to return to the mix. Both of those guys are likely going to be needed to help with this game. Ladson’s vertical speed is really critical to help loosen the Irish secondary that will be bent to lock down Travis Etienne and the shorter throws the Tigers leaned on last week. The Irish corners will likely look to bully the Clemson receivers off the line of scrimmage, so Ngata’s size and strength could be a major asset. Cornell Powell stepped up big time last week, and it was much needed, but I’m not sure how often we can expect him to win vs. this secondary. Amari Rodgers, of course, can beat anybody’s secondary, and I expect Tony Elliott to be even more creative with how he deploys Rodgers in this game. Obviously Travis Etienne will need to see 28-33 touches after having 28 last week. Elliott gave folks a lot to think about when Etienne was targeted for big plays on a wheel route and a straight go route from an empty formation. He is a mismatch for linebackers and probably most safeties on the perimeter.
Clemson’s inside run game continues to be very poor. Notre Dame will likely see how well they can defend things with just six in the box, and it will be imperative for the Tigers to punish them in those situations. The plan last week was built to protect D.J. from taking hits. He wasn’t featured that much in the run game, at least as much as you would have expected, and I don’t recall Clemson ever looking for a true deep shot over the top. I expect the Irish to dare Clemson to take those shots (which is pretty rare for us to see from opposing defenses). Clemson has been pretty magical on third downs this seasons, particularly when you consider how many third and longs the Tigers have had to face. That will eventually burn the Tigers if they can’t improve production on first and second downs. We have called for better creativity in the run game, and I think if we are going to see that, this is the game it happens.
D.J.’s performance last week inspires a ton of confidence, but he can’t be expected to win this game on his arm alone. Travis Etienne is the man, as we know, and as long as #9 is chugging along, the Tigers can win this game. It certainly feels as if losing Travis would be a bigger blow than losing Lawrence, even as great as Trevor is. D.J. offers generational talent behind Lawrence, but the drop-off behind Etienne at running back is horrendous, especially considering how multi-faceted Etienne’s game has become (and how the interior OL has had its problems in the run game).
Special Teams: The coaches are clearly willing to put Travis Etienne back to return punts or kicks if the game situation warrants it. Etienne got a crack at kick return last week to start the second half and promptly set the Tigers up near midfield. Will Spiers was big time when the team needed him to be, especially his final punt that buried BC near its own goal line to set up the game clinching safety from Bryan Bresee. B.T. Potter did have one missed kick off an upright, but nailed that 50 yarder to end the first half which was huge. This game figures to be a field position battle, at least in the early goings. As long as Clemson’s protections hold up, you have to feel very good about both kickers. Other than the extra point fiasco, you have to say Clemson won this phase pretty well last week, and it was a factor in the win. Notre Dame has been solid in this phase all year, though they haven’t really had any wow plays, they have avoided disaster.
Overall: Clemson fans get tired of the “who have you played?” questions from haters coming out of the SEC and B1G. Notre Dame should really be the ones getting that question. Clemson has at least played Miami, Wake, and Boston College, who all are better than the versions of GT, Pitt, South Florida, Duke, Louisville, and Florida State the Irish have played. This doesn’t mean Notre Dame isn’t a good team because clearly they are the second best team in the league, but Clemson is an entirely different animal from what they have seen to this point. There is a lot of pressure on ND to perform in this game, and I bet we see some cracks as a result. That will be enough for the Tigers to pull this out.
Clemson 24-Notre Dame 17.