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Game 9 Preview: Clemson Hosts Notre Dame

Time to Check the Oil on the Pride of the Program

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina State Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson beating Clemson has been the theme of 2023. The Tigers have outgained every opponent save Miami (a -17 difference) and yet sit at 4-4 and a pitiful 2-4 in ACC play. The Tigers lost to NC State despite giving up just over 200 yards of total offense. No matter how you try to cut it, this is just not a very good football team as of early November.

If you read my game previews regularly, you know I didn’t think this type of season was coming. I saw a lot of freshman talent that I thought would allow this team to really get good as the year progressed. That might still happen, maybe, but at this point it is hard to be all that optimistic when many of the same problems that have held Clemson down continue to persist.

Issues on the O-line, disappearing acts at receiver, and mercurial quarterback play have now been joined by very shaky placekicking and absolutely disastrous turnovers. It is almost a perfect storm that Clemson fans can only hope is will pass.

Now, Clemson faces a very good Notre Dame team, one superior to every other team except perhaps Florida State that the Tigers have seen. Just like last year, Notre Dame is good in all the right places to offset the strengths this Tiger team may have. They have one of the very best O-lines in college football and a strong, well-coached defensive unit. They now also have a veteran quarterback, Sam Hartman, who torched the Tigers last season while at Wake Forest. There isn’t a lot to like when you think about how this game seems to be shaping up.

For the first time this season and in at least 5+ years, this team will enter a game with hardly anyone thinking it can win. It will be interesting to see how this team responds.

Clemson offense vs. Notre Dame defense: The Irish bring the best overall defense the Tigers have seen all year. Duke has a very well-coached unit. NC State has a strong group. Florida State has some elite talent sprinkled across their defense. Notre Dame has a better defense than all of them in my view.

That doesn’t make the best recipe for a Clemson offensive revival, but on the flip side, successful offense in this game would be something to truly get excited about. The rest of year is all about preparing and previewing next year and Garrett Riley finding something to really hang his hat on.

Clemson has seen a couple of different defensive approaches. Duke and Wake played deeper safeties and looked to keep everything in front of them. Miami and NCSU were more aggressive with their fronts and coverages. In both cases, Clemson has been largely able to find ways inside the opposing 30 only to mostly fizzle or self-destruct instead of scoring. Big plays haven’t been big touchdowns when they have happened, and that hasn’t been all that often.

Notre Dame has already faced down Ohio State (and should have won) as well as Southern California’s dynamic offense. In both cases they did a tremendous job taking away what both of those teams can hurt you with the most. They easily put Caleb Williams through his worst night as a college quarterback and made Marvin Harrison, Jr. a virtual non-factor. As bad as their Louisville game was, the Cardinals still only managed 330 yards of total offense. They have shown they can be hurt on the ground, but can Clemson really block well enough to do it? Will Shipley’s health is in question and we are now hearing about Clemson’s highest grading OL, Marcus Tate, not being available on Saturday. The injury bug has begun biting this team the way it did in 2021.

If Clemson is going to win this game, it has to find at least one cheap TD somewhere. This was huge against Syracuse. Obviously the Tigers will need to play clean as well and not gift the Irish points with turnovers the way they have done over-and-over this season. Clemson played its cleanest game against Florida State and should have won that game, but that one big turnover mistake ended up flipping that game and turning a win into a loss. Cade Klubnik has got to turn a corner with some of his decision making and recognition so that his pretty high level talent can really make a difference as it has in spots during his time at Clemson. Some other Clemson teams had some turnover issues at time with Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson, but the difference was both of those QBs led offenses that had the firepower to potentially overcome them. This Clemson offense has yet to show much pop.

Many Clemson fans are actually happy Phil Mafah got RB #1 duty after Will Shipley went out hurt in Raleigh. Mafah has continued to be the highest graded skill guy consistently since last year. Hopefully Shipley will be cleared and can play as well as the Tigers really need all hands on deck for a game like this.

Clemson defense vs. Notre Dame offense: Clemson has already had to lean more on this defense than it should. In Power 5 games, the Tigers haven’t been able to extend beyond a two score lead at any point except Syracuse. That has allowed teams like Miami and NC State to protect their inexperienced quarterbacks. It is highly unlikely Clemson’s offense can just rack up a bunch of points in this game, so the defense will need to create momentum and not just force punts. Can the Tigers turn Notre Dame over in advantageous spots or even get a defensive score of its own? It won’t be easy but Louisville was able to do it and it propelled them to victory.

It will all start with holding up against the run game. Notre Dame had their way with Clemson last year despite having sub-par quarterbacking. I would feel better about this had I not seen Miami’s offensive line take over against the Tigers two weeks ago. Clemson still hasn’t quite been able to replace the type of zone run destruction that Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence brought to the table during the glory years. Clemson’s TFLs now tend to come from LBs or secondary guys on blitzes. Sam Hartman is an upgrade at QB for Notre Dame this year, but he can still be had IF you can put him on his backside and steer them away from the run.

This Clemson defense is good, and at times very good, but, like the offense, has paid dearly for the mistakes it has made. Missed run fits have led to long TDs. Missed tackles have led to long TDs. Penalties have negated third down stops and allowed for scores. The other thing about this year is Clemson has been terrible at the field position game that you need to do well with if you are going to play lower scoring games. Clemson seems to routinely start drives from inside their own 25 while the opposition usually gets to punt from mid-field. Clemson has got to win the field position battle Saturday to upset the Irish. The defense has to do its part and not allow the Irish to escape their 35 yards line if they start back behind it. Then you just hope the Ray Guy curse doesn’t once again turn the opposing punter into an All-American for a day against Clemson.

Special Teams: I said last week that it would be nice if this phase could give the team a lift the way 2009’s special teams did for that group. However it was more of the same. Nothing from punt return and no blocked kicks. Jonathan Weitz missed another field goal and even the most reliable part of Clemson’s special teams, punter Aidan Swanson, had a few poor punts that set NC State up with great field position. The grim reality is Clemson’s special teams are, at best, extremely average. Notre Dame has a 99-yard kick return TD and an 82-yard punt return TD this season. The Irish went and got a kicker from South Florida in the portal and he’s missed just twice all year and has a make from 54 yards. You definitely have to give the edge to ND in this department.

Overall: As much as I would like to predict otherwise, I can’t pick Clemson to win this game. Clemson needs its front seven on defense to dominate, but ND’s elite OL will make that very difficult. Clemson needs to win the field position game and make ND play from a long field while giving its offense shorter fields to navigate, but Notre Dame has better specialists. Clemson has the secondary to potentially blanket ND’s outside guys, but can they really stuff Estime and force Hartman to deal with third and longs? Maybe Notre Dame will take a page out of Clemson’s book and have disaster strike at very inopportune times. I simply can’t bank on that. I think Clemson will hang around for a while then break late like they did at Duke and Miami.

Notre Dame 31
Clemson 12