Clemson is back in Charlotte for the sixth consecutive year to defend its ACC championship against likely one-and-done ACC football member Notre Dame. There are simple but profound stakes for the Tigers in this one: win and make the CFP Playoffs once again, or lose and likely be relegated to the Orange Bowl.
On a personal note, it would be a hard pill to swallow to see Notre Dame enter the conference for football for just one season and win the entire thing. The Tigers are healthier this time, but Notre Dame is a very good team and still has most of the guys who gave Clemson problems in the double-overtime thriller in South Bend. Clemson will need to play better; not simply point to having Trevor Lawrence, James Skalski, Tyler Davis, Mike Jones, etc., at its disposal this time around as the path to victory.
Clemson offense vs. Notre Dame defense: The Irish have had a tremendous year on defense and can claim to have the best in the league heading into this game. That said, the Tigers put more points and yards on that defense in the first meeting than anyone else, not to mention doing it with the backup quarterback and only two of the top five WRs available. The Irish were great against the run, were better on third/fourth-down defense, and won the turnover battle. Clemson simply has to reverse at least one of those three things this time around.
Having Trevor Lawrence back for this game is huge due to his advanced understanding of the offense and reading defenses post snap. DJ Uiagalelei can match Trevor’s arm for sure, but there is no substitute for those extra game snaps in pressure situations. DJ’s shoulder issue also limited his ability to be a running threat in the first meeting. The Irish will surely continue to try to eliminate Travis Etienne above all else, but we should expect them to pay an even higher price for that this time around than the 439 yards passing they surrendered last time.
Clemson will have to take better care of the football in this game for certain. The back-to-back turnovers in the first half, one leading to a touchdown return, presented a difficult mountain for the Tigers to climb. Trevor has been sharp all season, but he did throw a pick in the endzone and put two other balls in serious jeopardy against Virginia Tech. Clemson has been more efficient on first down in the games following that loss, and will need remain such this time. The threat of the run on second- and third-and-shorter will set up more potential explosive plays.
Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers were dominant in the first game against the Irish secondary. Powell beat them deep for the first touchdown of the night, and remained a serious problem the rest of the evening both before and after the catch. Clemson fans have their fingers crossed that Frank Ladson will be able to play and be effective as well, adding the only elite speed in the deep ball for the Irish to worry about. Travis Etienne will certainly be looking to atone for perhaps the worst game of his illustrious career in that first meeting. The Tigers don’t need to run for 200+, but it has to be better than the pitiful output from the first game.
Clemson defense vs. Notre Dame offense: I think, more than anything, this is the side of the ball that will really determine this game. Notre Dame’s offense had their way with a beat up Clemson defense in the first outing. The defense needed one stop several times in the fourth and then in the two O.T.’s and simply couldn’t get it done. Ian Book had probably the best game of his career and was helped by several big time plays by his WR corps. Irish back Kyren Williams not only ripped the Tigers for over 100 yards rushing and 3 TDs, he also put on a blitz pickup clinic, stoning Baylon Spector multiple times. These are considered one-on-one battles that the Tigers did not win nearly enough of in game 1.
We all know Tyler Davis makes a huge difference inside for the Tiger defense. The Irish were free to double Bryan Bresee the majority of the night, even when Clemson went with four down linemen. Davis being there makes that nearly impossible to do, and it also allows Venables to play Bresee at end in the 3-man fronts to stay heavy against the run. James Skalski also brings the Tiger defense up a level with his ability not only as a player, but also as the captain of the defense. The Irish deploy a lot of 2- and 3-tight end packages, and Skalski is certainly an upgrade in pass coverage from Jake Venables who played most of the Mike snaps in game 1.
I expected the Tiger corners to dominate the Irish skill on the outside, but that didn’t really happen. Injuries played a part, but credit the Irish for making several difficult, contested plays during the night. Book also put the ball right where it had to be and was never made uncomfortable. Clemson simply has to be able to punish Book when he scrambles and tries to extend plays, not miss repeatedly as they did last time out. We might see more of Mike Jones and Trenton Simpson together to give Clemson more speed and athleticism on the second level. Clemson should have its full contingent of corners available, as well as usual starting safety Lannden Zanders who hasn’t played since departing the first ND game with an injury. The big play that set up the tying Irish TD in regulation came at the expense of third team safety Ray Mickens, who was forced into action that night.
We haven’t been able to see Brent Venables face an offense twice in a season, especially one who got the better of him the first time around. You wonder what a rematch with Pitt in 2016 might have looked like, or Syracuse in 2017. It should be fascinating. To me, the Irish used their one path to success the first time around. They really have no choice but try it again. How well Clemson can tighten up its play against that plan will be the key. Book will need to match his effort and precision from the first game, and his skill guys will need to make those same kinds of plays. Even though the Irish don’t have their full starting OL like they did in game 1, this is still a strong unit who absolutely won the battle up front the first time around. The Clemson front 7 will need to atone.
Special Teams: Clemson got what it needed from the kicking game in game 1. Spiers and Potter both made clutch kicks that should have led to Clemson winning had the defense not fallen apart. Spiers was awful in Blacksburg, so hopefully he will get back to the guy we have seen all year otherwise when Clemson has to punt. Kick return was not as good, especially early on when Lyn-J Dixon messed up and got a earful from Swinney before being benched. Dixon has been his best this season the last two weeks which is good to see. Travis is amazing, but the team needs depth to help him out. Notre Dame was similarly solid on special teams and made their kicks (except the really long one to end the first half). Their 3 punts were solid, with no return damage. As usual, games like this could easily turn on a big play or disaster on Special Teams. Clemson usually plays conservatively in this phase, but maybe we see something this time around that is different.
Overall: Notre Dame is built the way a team needs to be built to beat Clemson. They have a strong OL, a savvy QB, and a strong defense. Most chatter I have seen points to a healthy Clemson being able to handle the Irish fairly easily. The line for this game has pushed into double digits. That doesn’t sway my feeling that Clemson has to play clean, much cleaner than game 1 was. Clemson is scary good when dialed into the details, though, and even this strong ND squad can’t keep up if that happens. The Irish have to hope for the same strong start they got in game 1 to make this another war. Should the Tigers be the ones racing out of the gate, this game could get a little ugly for the Irish. I think Clemson ultimately pulls this one out, but the Irish put up a strong fight in the process and secure playoff bids for both.
Clemson 38-ND 28