There has been a mountain of evidence that shows Notre Dame is a worthy College Football Playoff contender through four games; three routes, one nail-biter on the road with the back-up quarterback, and astounding offensive numbers. But, the evidence is just that, evidence, and a final verdict comes in Saturday in Death Valley against the 12th ranked Clemson Tigers. It will be the first road start for quarterback DeShone Kizer, who of course is filling in injured starter Malik Zaire, and Death Valley isn’t exactly the most accommodating of places. Of course, crowd noise never intercepted a pass, as Florida State found out in 2013, when after Clemson touched their rock and ran down that hill, Florida State crushed them 51-14 in a meeting of two top 10 teams. That just illustrates this isn’t an impossible mountain to climb.
Here’s a look at the match-ups offensively and defensively for Notre Dame that will ultimately decide the game and perhaps their season:
Notre Dame Offensive Line vs. Clemson Front Seven
The overriding strength of Notre Dame’s offensive unit is the line that protects Kizer and opens up holes for their explosive running backs. Entering Saturday’s contest, Notre Dame is 12th nationally in rushing at 284 yards a game and 6th in yards per carry at 6.7. The majority of Notre Dame fans could stare at those numbers all day, as they have been waiting for a running game like this since the days of sweet Lou Holtz. The dominance of Notre Dame’s front has allowed their main running backs CJ Prosise and Josh Adams to rush for 799 yards on 97 carries for 8.2 a tote and 9 touchdowns between the two of them. In an incredible stat, not only is CJ Prosise averaging 2.8 yards after contact, but on 24 of his 74 carries he’s gone a full five yards without being touched at all. People often say, “well I could have run through that hole.” This season that might literally be true. Fortunately for Notre Dame, the line is no one trick pony when it comes to blocking. According to our friends at College Football Film Room, tackles Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey have yet to give up a single sack, hit or hurry in the pass game, while the trio of Steve Elmer, Quenton Nelson and Nick Martin have allowed just 5 hurries, 3 hits, and 2 sacks through the first 4 contests.
In a proverbial “something’s gotta give” matchup, Clemson boasts a solid defensive front 7 that is ranked 9th nationally in total defense, giving up a measly 260 yards a game. They are surrendering a paltry 114 yards on the ground and just 2.8 yards per carry through their first three games, while they sacked Louisville’s quarterbacks five times in their last outing. Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson figures to be particularly troublesome for Notre Dame’s front as he’s already registered 5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks for the Tigers. This will likely be Notre Dame’s toughest front 7 all season and vice versa for Clemson. Like with Georgia Tech, Notre Dame has the advantage in that they are battle tested against three Power 5 schools in Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech, while Clemson has tussled with Wofford, Appalachian St. and Louisville to start the season, the latter of which was a full 16 days previous to Saturday’s tilt. They have not seen a line anywhere near what the Fighting Irish are bringing to town Saturday, and that is not something you can simulate in practice.
If Notre Dame can control this defensive front while giving Kizer time to set his feet and deliver balls on time to the array of weapons Notre Dame brings on offense, you really have to like their chances to put points on the board against the Tigers. This unit is on pace to easily be the most explosive team Brian Kelly has put on the field for the Irish. Through four games, Notre Dame has amassed six plays of 50 yards or more; in all of 2014, Notre Dame totaled eight plays of that length which is also the previous high of the Kelly era. This team can not only grind you down, but they can also gash you for the big one once you are worn out.
Notre Dame secondary vs. Deshaun Watson
The supposed strength of the Notre Dame defense in the pre-season was to be their secondary and so far the returns have been only lukewarm. They have played two teams so far that could only boast a modest passing game in Virginia and UMass, but Notre Dame was a little too flattering at times against the aforementioned aerial attacks. They made Matt Johns of Virginia look like the second coming of the great Mike Groh, giving up nearly 300 yards on 68% passing and two touchdowns. Twice Johns was able to lead Virginia back from 12 point deficits to take the lead on Notre Dame, the latter of which needed the well known heave from Kizer to Fuller to save the Irish season. Similarly, Blake Frohnapfel had UMass to 21-20 late in the second quarter until the dueling CJ’s–Sanders and Prosise–crushed their souls and ended the competitive flow.
Most alarming is Notre Dame’s lack of playmaking in the secondary so far this year. A unit that features four returning starters, including three year starters in KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate, would hold promise as ball-hawking turnover machines. This is not the way it has played out. Through four games and 133 attempts, Notre Dame has intercepted just a single pass, by corner Cole Luke off of a tip by back up safety Matthias Farley. It is possible that trend is a fluke; Notre Dame is 10th nationally in passes broken up and 27th in passes defended. It would seem they are around the ball enough, just haven’t been able to create turnovers. There isn’t a better time to break that trend than during Saturday’s contest in Death Valley.
Notre Dame will need playmaking against Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who is seen as one of college football’s best quarterbacks in 2015. Before going down with injury in 2014, Watson was having a stellar freshman campaign. Through eight games he accrued over 1,400 yards passing, completed 68% of his passes, 14 TD’s to just two interceptions. He also posted five rushing touchdowns and averaged an impressive 10.7 yards per attempt. He’s off to a slower start this year, averaging only 8.3 yards per attempt, for reference those are Tommy Rees like numbers, and putting up 213 yards/game and has already thrown three picks to go with seven touchdowns. The task was made harder with the loss of #1 wide receiver Mike Williams, who suffered a neck injury in the opener against Wofford and will likely be lost for the season. Notre Dame’s main focus in the pass game will be Artavis Scott who was a big play machine for Clemson last year and has yet to break out so far this season. He leads the team with 20 catches and 188 yards with three scores, but in 2014 he hauled in 76 passes for close to 1,000 yards and had eight visits to the end zone. Given Watson’s low yards per attempt this year, and high completion percentage, expect Clemson to execute a short passing game looking to get players like Scott in space and let them work.
While Clemson has averaged 188 yards/game on the ground so far, it’s the passing game with Watson that powers this Clemson engine. In addition to losing Mike Williams, Clemson lost starting left tackle Isaiah Battle to the supplemental draft in the off-weakening their offensive line. The Notre Dame defensive line could help the secondary tremendously by pressuring Watson and making him uncomfortable in the pocket. Given Watson’s running ability, it may be wise to use top pass rushers Sheldon Day and Issac Rochell on the inside and contain with their ends on the outside.
In big games like this the talent needs to rule the day. The Notre Dame offensive line is the reason Notre Dame is so explosive, if they can continue their dominating level of play, look for them to put up points. The Notre Dame secondary is littered with experience and NFL talent. If they can play up to their potential they will take away what Clemson does best and keep their signal caller off the field. These are two unit match-ups that if Notre Dame wins, will see them ultimately win the scoreboard battle as well. There is plenty of evidence to suggest Notre Dame will do just that. Now comes the Saturday verdict.