This is an absurd end to an absurd season. Let’s take a second to really let that all sink in. Notre Dame football was forced to sublet a season in the Atlantic Coast Conference because of a pandemic, and managed in one year what took Miami a decade and a half. Now the Sun Belt isn’t playing a conference championship game and Notre Dame is.
Part of how the Irish got here was a shootout against a backup quarterback after what is likely the number one draft pick in the country tested positive for COVID-19. Said backup quarterback was playing on a hurt enough shoulder that the coaching staff didn’t feel comfortable running him often. DJU still put up over 400 yards passing.
Now, Notre Dame and Clemson are getting ready for a rematch where one team is going to nail down a spot in the college football playoff... and one team might get in anyways because the Big 12 can’t produce an undefeated team and no one seems to be taking 5-0 USC seriously despite the Trojans having the exact same record as Ohio State. I’m not saying that that’s wrong, but I do find it very funny.
You gotta find the laughs where you can this weekend. It’s been a grueling season. There are more games cancelled than worth watching Saturday.
Both teams seem stronger than when they last faced off in early November, with Notre Dame’s passing game breaking out a bit behind the emergence of WR’s Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek, and Clemson getting multiple key starters back.
Notre Dame’s identity is the same as it was when the teams last met up. The Irish are going to try to establish the run behind an elite offensive line, waves of good tight ends, and star RB Kyren Williams. Once the run has been established, Notre Dame is able to convert third downs at a high rate through a combination of keeping itself in third and manageable and Ian Book’s arm, legs, and ability to react under pressure.
This manifested immediately against Clemson in the first matchup, with a 65-yard TD setting the tone early. The blown tackle at the end is unacceptable, I’m not excusing it, but I’m not sure Williams gets one-on-one with a safety if either Skalski or Davis are playing. Brian Kelly was quick to note the difference Skalski’s size and leadership can make against the run this week.
The return of Skalski and Davis may also help the Tigers against inside runs from jumbo personnel groupings. This was a look where the Irish repeatedly bowled over Clemson’s front.
Even down many of its best defenders, Clemson’s run defense had moments against the Irish. Outside of the 65-yard elephant in the room on the first drive, the Tigers actually held Notre Dame under four yards per carry.
The problem is that TD run changed the dynamic of the game, Clemson didn’t gain a lead until the fourth quarter. That entire time Notre Dame was able to call runs that wore down the Clemson defense, which ultimately broke down in the fourth quarter and overtime. This was exacerbated by Clemson’s uncharacteristic turnover problems. In addition, because Notre Dame was able to run up the middle, third and short situations were often easily converted.
Those runs were enough to open up the deep shots over the top that make this passing game explosive. Notre Dame wasn’t forced to rely on the dropback pass until late in the game against a defense that was battered and exhausted. Instead, Ian Book was able to take deep shots behind good protection against defenders who had to account for the run first.
Notre Dame was also aided on third down by the passing game. Notre Dame’s bevy of tight ends provides the Irish with sure-handed, big-bodied targets who teams have to account for in the running game. The absence of Mike Jones Jr. at Sam and (for part of the game) injuries at safety showed up covering them.
It’s been discussed nationally already, but we have to point out Williams did excellent work slowing down Venables’ blitz schemes in the first matchup. There were also just some incredible contested passes caught by the Irish receivers on the sidelines. It’s not fun being on the other side of plays like these, and the McKinley-Book connection has looked even stronger lately.
Book was also able to do a lot of damage scrambling and throwing on the run. Venables played without a spy for much of the game, which left the Irish quarterback a surplus of room to work.
I would be surprised to see Venables send so many blitzes given how few got home in the last matchup. Instead, I would look for one of Clemson’s more athletic linebackers to spy Book, who Nyles Pinckney described as “quicker than you want him to be”.
Using fast linebackers as spies is something this defense has had success with before. Isaiah Simmons led Clemson in sacks last year in a similar role.
We’ve said this before, but so much of this game will come down to stopping the run early, turnovers, and third downs. As a run-first team, Notre Dame’s offense is significantly more dangerous when they can play with a lead. That first touchdown by Williams above set the tone for the rest of the night.
Turnovers didn’t help. ND vs. Clemson was only the third game all year that Clemson lost the turnover battle, only the second time it turned the ball over more than once, and it was the only time they turned it over three times. Some of those turnovers in the red zone led to fourteen-point swings.
These are two of the best teams in the country on third down. Notre Dame converts third downs at above a 50% rate, and did so against Clemson. Clemson’s defense hasn’t allowed anyone else to convert more than 40% of their third downs.
In a game as tightly contested as the first one, matchups like these going even slightly better for Clemson should be enough for the Tigers to win, as could the lack of home field advantage for Notre Dame. Vegas favors Clemson by ten-plus points. But the Irish are better than the other teams Clemson has dispatched from the ACC title game the last few years. SP+ sees this as a one touchdown game. Get ready, because this could be another long one.