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Game 9 Preview: Clemson Travels to Battle Notre Dame

Big Boy Football!

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard, Ken Ruinard via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Don’t mind me while I bask in the glow of 8-0 in November. I remember all too well the strange feelings of being all but eliminated from a conference championship opportunity this time last season to not feel anything less than great right now.

While this upcoming tilt with Notre Dame doesn’t have the top 10 shine that many anticipated in the preseason, it still is a massive game against a team with a lot of quality pieces. It won’t impact Clemson’s chances of making the ACC title game, and in fact the Tigers could very well clinch the Atlantic by default this weekend pending other matchups, but we all know this game has serious playoff implications for the program that continues to take shots from various media members as not being worthy of the top 4.

The ACC, despite being a good bit stronger overall this season (particularly on the Atlantic side), still lacks true national respect. Look no further than FSU being unranked at the moment despite owning a win over LSU and close losses to ranked teams. NCSU pre-and-post Devin Leary should be accounted for as much as if someone got to face Southern California without Caleb Williams, etc. Most programs would be in bad shape having to resort to the backup quarterback.

That leads us to Notre Dame, who had to do so since week 2 this season. The Irish were a tough out against Ohio State in the first week, and really defended the Buckeyes better than anyone since, but subsequently lost to Marshall and then again to Stanford. They have rebounded from a “get right” game against UNLV to handle Syracuse and are playing their best football heading into this game.

The Irish are a different breed of cat from what the Tigers have faced so far this season. NCSU might be the only team that somewhat resembles the style the Irish play, but ND is much better at running back and tight end than the Pack. This is a true strength on strength matchup and sets up to be a real slugfest.

Clemson offense vs. ND defense: Clemson certainly needs DJU to bounce back from the poor game against Syracuse that got him benched in favor of Cade Klubnik. The Irish defense is pretty legit and is the only unit this season to really stifle the North Carolina offense (at least for two and a half quarters), not to mention how they held Ohio State down for a good portion of that game.

Notre Dame’s losses have not come at the expense of their defense. They actually are having a season similar to Clemson’s last year. A tough loss to a title contender in week one followed by middling performances behind a struggling offense. However, just like 2021 Clemson, the Irish are leaning on their running game and defense to become much more dangerous overall.

Syracuse didn’t match up well at all against the Irish on either side. Clemson would have put a similar beating on them had the turnovers not happened en-masse or if DJ would have been anything like his normal 2022 self. Clemson owned the line of scrimmage and so did the Irish.

Clemson has unleashed the run game to power the offense in the last two wins, but ND is going to be a lot harder to run on than FSU and Syracuse. Clemson’s WR play is going to have to step up, and that unit was the key to Clemson’s offensive performances in the two meetings with ND in 2020.

Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell dominated their Irish defenders both times. Clemson is going to have to make plays in the passing game like they didn’t really do very much vs. Syracuse and FSU. Clemson still needs to feature Will Shipley and Phil Mafah, but now is the time for the offensive staff to throw some wrinkles against the tendencies developed so far this year.

Clemson’s offensive line has been improving and will need to put together its best game this week. ND cannot be allowed to generate havoc with just four or five guys. If the Tigers can make ND commit extra numbers to try to generate pressure, then the opportunities will emerge to have explosive plays. We saw the flip side of this in 2020’s game up there when a depleted Clemson defense was forced to throw extra bodies to affect Ian Book and that allowed for big plays off the scramble and through the air.

Notre Dame is built to play from ahead and not from behind, much like the 2021 Clemson unit, so the offense’s ability to stake a two score lead or more will go a long way to averting the “upset” in South Bend. I still look to tight ends Davis Allen, Jake Briningstool, and WR Antonio Williams as real X factors for this game vs. the inside defenders for ND.

Clemson defense vs. ND offense: Stop the run, stop the run, stop the run! That is the real key to victory on this side of the ball. The Tigers have to keep ND at 150 yards rushing or less, which Marshall, Stanford, and Ohio State all did in their wins vs. the Irish.

TE Michael Mayer is a real problem for everyone, but you have to take your chances with that passing game and it gets a lot less dynamic if play action isn’t a factor. If there ever was a real “money game” for Clemson’s draft eligible front seven guys, this is the game. If the Irish can stay in third in 3 or less, things will be sticky. If the Tigers can get the Irish in third and 8 or worse, then the Irish will have real problems.

Thankfully the Clemson DL is at its healthiest coming off the open date and returns dynamic SAM Barrett Carter, who figures to spend a lot of time tracking Mayer. Clemson’s linebackers will have to be sound in their run fits which have been a little spotty at times this season.

I’m very curious to see how Wes Goodwin plans to line up against the ND offense. This is the type of offense that Brent Venables would go to his 4-3 Under looks to combat. Usually I feel good about Clemson facing a heavy run-first offense as typically the Tigers flex their superior front seven muscle to stifle it. Offenses with uber-athletic quarterbacks and tempo attacks tend to give me a lot more heartburn. ND will certainly be thinking the same thing as Clemson: get a lead early and force the other team to have to throw to win.

Special Teams: This game could really bring this third phase into the spotlight, particularly if both offenses are struggling to move it effectively. You love having B.T. Potter on your side in this case. Aidan Swanson will hopefully continue the good work he has done the last two games and not revert to the poor punting we saw in games 2-5. You figure making a huge play via return or from a blocked kick or turnover in this phase would tilt the scales rather heavily towards the beneficiary. This doesn’t figure to be a game where you can recover from a huge mistake or multiple turnovers.

Overall: Make no mistake, this is a tough matchup in a tough venue. Games like this make your quarterback play of utmost importance. Clemson won’t win if DJU doesn’t bounce back and play like he had been before. Clemson won’t be able to just run the ball 60 times against this defense. I still have to like DJ against ND’s Drew Pyne. The key is making Pyne have to win this game.

Clemson has plenty of doubters out there and this is a game where they can really show they belong at the top of college football. I’m obviously biased, but I have to believe Clemson’s defense can control the ND rushing attack and that Clemson is better equipped to win without the run game being great.

A slugfest: Clemson 24-ND 20