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Round Two


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 ACC Championship Game Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What are YOU doing to get ready for Clemson-Notre Dame Round 2? I’m looking ahead to Round 3, and lamenting what will likely be an empty stadium for Clemson’s first Rose Bowl appearance because this game is a foregone conclusion. Diet Clemson became Angry Clemson, and now the shoe may be on the other foot in the trenches, or at least closer to equal footing.

Just kidding, this will be a war. For a while anyway.

In the spirit of diplomacy and the holiday season, tomorrow I will extend the proverbial olive branch and put myself in another’s shoes by partaking in every Midwesterner and Northeast Subway Alumni’s annual winter pilgrimage down I-95 through Florida — on game day, no less. But enough about shoes and Florida.

This won’t be Film Preview Redux since I just went in on Clark Lea’s unit a month and a half ago. (Seriously, click that hyperlink for a still-relevant refresher). I’ll gloss over what I took from Round 1 and what I want/expect to see in Round 2.

All the strengths and tendencies remain from a unit which ultimately defended Clemson from the fourth quarter onward about as effectively as I expected them to do throughout the entire game in November. Not much will change this time around in their defensive approach, except Lea may begin with more conservative coverages in the back (though still disguising with late safety movement as ever) out of cautious respect for Trevor Lawrence rather than his wait and see approach with DJ Uiagalelei.

Speaking of Lea, this week he was announced as the new Vanderbilt head coach. Any Clemson fans hoping it will affect Notre Dame’s preparation or the eventual outcome should let go of that pipe dream now. Aside from being literal professionals, coaches are hyper-competitive in ways none of us can comprehend without having played or coached at such a high level. Lea will not be distracted or look ahead to Nashville. He will have his unit focused and ready to punish me for all my coping tweets since November 7th about how ND only barely beat Diet Clemson.

Notre Dame will still be difficult to run against, no matter how much we’ve heard about the staff “challenging” Clemson’s offensive line to be more physical; there’s simply not much to be done with this offensive line. The OL isn’t solely to blame, however. From every single defense stacking the box, to DJ not doing what Lawrence could’ve done to help them out, and even Travis Etienne delivering perhaps the worst performance of his career in South Bend, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Though I want to hope Tony Elliott has some fresh schemes to kickstart the running game, this OL can’t hold blocks long enough for any outside zones or stretch runs to develop without backfield misdirection to pull defenders out of position, and I can’t objectively assert Elliott is finally ready to reveal some wrinkles for the postseason even though he has in the past; this line may be too great a hindrance.

Thus, any sustained success on the ground will hinge upon Lawrence making Lea, and particularly safety Kyle Hamilton, pay for selling out on Etienne, whether it’s Lawrence pulling and getting to the edge on the zone read calls, or more often, by checking out of inside zones to Etienne with bubbles to Amari Rodgers — for this is what Clemson missed the most without Lawrence in South Bend.

The Irish weaknesses are still at cornerback and their conventional four down pass rush, no matter whether Frank Ladson is healthy enough to help Cornell Powell out wide and force Hamilton to think about playing deep coverage. It’s here where Clemson found most of its success in South Bend, and though Lawrence may be more deliberate than DJ in checking into the correct play or read, he would be wise to take his shots to Powell or Ladson downfield with a similar frequency.

Which leads me to my two biggest points for optimism, or at least rectification, when looking back on November 7th:

First, Lawrence will command the offense and allow it to be more balanced, hitting the Irish wherever they’re weakest on each individual play rather than just wowing us with his arm. And he’s obviously capable of matching DJ on those deep shots.

Second, Clemson should have a much easier time defending the Irish run game, and Ian Book by extension, with Tyler Davis and James Skalski back in the lineup.

Looking back, I’m still shocked Clemson lasted two overtimes, only allowing regulation touchdowns in the first and final minutes of the game while lacking its two most important pieces among countless others. When we consider it was what I believe are still the Irish’s biggest weaknesses which ultimately beat Clemson — wide receivers beating Clemson corners on contested throws and/or beating back up safeties on wide open throws downfield from a weak-armed QB — it’s even more surprising. And crucially, why I don’t think it can be replicated to carry the Irish to victory.

Book and his outside receivers have been on a tear since the Clemson game, so I don’t mean to take away from what Book does well, but I don’t think anyone on either side foresaw him completing passes 20+ yards downfield with the consistency he found.

Much of this was because Clemson ultimately lost its entire starting secondary and all but one member of its starting back seven, but Book was hot all night and nothing Venables did worked. With Davis and Skalski back, Venables won’t have to throw bodies into the backfield only to see them swallowed by Kyren Williams’ spectacular pass protection, leaving unready safeties and undermanned corners isolated in cover 0. Davis can control the interior line, especially with ND down its starting center, and we’ve seen how much better Bryan Bresee is when he can slide to 3 tech with Davis at 1 tech, and the same with Baylon Spector when Skalski is next to him at inside linebacker. And that’s before listing everything Skalski brings.

At corner, if Andrew Booth is ready to go and DK decides he wants to be on the field, we should see a much improved performance. It’s the tight ends and Book extending plays which will make or break the matchup on this side of the ball, whereas in November it was Williams saving Book from constant Clemson pressure while Book scrambled or hit the contested throws downfield despite his nonexistent pass velocity.

I said last month I’d take Clemson by two scores with a healthy Tyler Davis no matter who plays quarterback for Clemson, and the betting line has settled there at about 11 points. Though I’d take Clemson to cover those 11 points if I were a betting man, I did not expect a line so large. But with the necessary pieces on defense ready to go against Notre Dame, Lawrence and a healthier (though still hobbled) receiver group on the other side, and Championship Phase Clemson eager and rested I feel it’s still a safe bet.

This is more vindication than revenge, and it’ll be enough to leave no doubt.

Clemson 37, Notre Dame 20

Rose Bowl against Ohio State cometh. Ugh...