The favorite sports pundit thing to do when talking about Notre Dame on the big stage is to the reference the 2013 Orange Bowl against Alabama. It’s the only thing that informs their thinking about what might happen December 29th against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Interestingly, when folks talk about that game, it’s almost always in regards to the talent gap. Notre Dame could not match Alabama player for player, and subsequently got run off the field. And because that gap still exists, at least on paper, a similar result is likely, and as of today, Notre Dame is 13.5 point underdogs. The betting public thinks along the same lines.
What is almost never emphasized when discussing that game is the sizable gap in coaching that existed as well. Not just in game, but in the lead up. Brian Kelly has mentioned before that the game was a failure in preparation as much as a failure on the field. He has lamented the lack of physicality in their practices due to the lack of depth; he didn’t want anyone getting hurt in the lead up. Consequently, the team that took the field in Miami was not the team that had played the bulk of the regular season.
Notre Dame took the field with Chuck Martin as the play caller, who had been coaching safeties the year before, and Bob Diaco as the defensive coordinator, who obviously did a good job that season, but has been less than successful since leaving the Irish. That staff matched up with Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, and were simply outclassed. If the Irish have a chance this weekend against the #2 Clemson Tigers, Notre Dame coordinators Chip Long and Clark Lea have to not only be their equals, but perhaps their superiors.
Chip Long Vs The Clemson Defense
According to S&P+, Clemson has the #1 defense in the country. They are fantastic. They are ranked where they are because of their defensive front, boasting two first team All-Americans, one on the interior in Christian Wilkins, and another at defensive end in Clelin Ferrell. Those guys by themselves are bonafide game wreckers. They also feature Austin Bryant and freshman defense end Xavier Thomas. The Irish cause has been buoyed by the possible suspension of defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who tested positive for trace amounts of a performance enhancer in the lead up to the game. He is appealing.
Either way, the Clemson defense is a handful. And they’ve had a month to prepare with perhaps the best defensive coordinator in college football, Brent Venables.
How can Chip Long match up with his offense. For starters, he can draw on his experience against Michigan in Week 1. The circumstances were relatively the same: Michigan was the #1 defense in S&P+ all year until they got blitzed by Ohio State, boasted a strong defensive line, a great coordinator, and loads of time to prepare.
Long didn’t have his running back, his top quarterback wasn’t the best option at the time, and the offensive line was new. But, what Long did against them is what he needs to do this week, and that’s keep them off balance. Most don’t realize how often the defense can identify the play being run pre-snap between down and distance, personnel, time of game, etc. Film study is a wonderful thing.
For Long, he can’t be predictable against the Tigers. They have to be guessing on defense. This doesn’t mean gimmick plays, it means shifting personnel groupings, throwing left when you usually throw right, things like that.
Clemson’s defense is good, but they aren’t magic. They gave up boat loads of yards against Texas A&M and South Carolina, mostly through the air. It won’t be Long’s game plan to just chuck it all over the field, it’s never been his M.O. to do that. But we can be sure he will use those examples to exploit the weaknesses in the secondary in key moments.
Situational Play Calling
There are 5-10 key plays in every football game that can determine the outcome. Maybe it’s a third and short in the red zone that scores a touchdown instead of having to kick a field goal, or a fourth and short, or a two point conversion. Big games are often won in the margin, and winning the toss-up plays is part of that. These are times when he really has to out coach Venables, to call the play they aren’t thinking of. That’s what separates the good from the great coordinators.
Clark Lea Vs. The Clemson Offense
Clemson is basically good at everything offensively. Their running game is statistically like Notre Dames running game last season, with leading rusher Travis Etienne running for over eight yards a carry. The passing game is dynamic with Trevor Lawrence and a number of highly ranked receivers.
So what is Clark Lea to do? First, what he’s been doing the last three weeks–using his four down linemen and TeVon Coney in the middle to stop the run when the defense is spread out–is unlikely to work. Clemson runs the ball too well for that. They’ll need the sixth man in the box to help with the running game when they spread Notre Dame out. Where does that sixth man come from? Who will it be? That’s what Lea needs to master.
Clemson’s offense is the ultimate pick your poison, and the defense, much more than the offense, is about the preparation leading up to it. Lea doesn’t have a call sheet with hundreds of defensive plays to use. Whatever the game plan is, the Irish defense needs to execute it play after play. Luckily, Lea has got himself a pretty nice defense to work with, and to be sure, Clemson hasn’t seen a defense this year that is anything close to this. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but the fact is they haven’t. They haven’t seen heat like our heat.
The big question for Lea is will he have them ready? And like Long, Lea can draw on his defense being ready every week this year. But, these are the big tests. The tests that separate the good from the great coaches. It’s a very big opportunity for Notre Dame’s two young coordinators to put their names up there with the elites. Hopefully, they are ready to meet that challenge.