For the second time in six weeks, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will take the field against the Clemson Tigers. However, unlike their Nov. 7 matchup that was won in overtime by the Irish, this battle will be for the ACC title. That’s a circumstance forged by Notre Dame’s one-year status as a football member of the conference due to the scheduling chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
This particular clash won’t be taking place in the Golden Dome’s friendly confines, but instead roughly 135 miles from the Clemson campus. That factor, the return of Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the presumable desire for revenge by Dabo Swinney’s squad make winning this game a formidable task for the Irish.
Below are some of the key matchups that are worthy of closer scrutiny include:
QB Ian Book vs. Clemson Defense
In the earlier contest, Book saw his image quickly go from goat to hero. Book’s fumble into the end zone changed a potential touchdown into a touchback for Clemson, but a score to send the game into overtime wiped away the earlier miscue. He’s facing a Tigers defense with 38 sacks on the year, so he needs to remain vigilant.
Clemson allowed 47 points and 518 yards of offense in their loss to the Irish, an aberration for a team that otherwise averaged giving up 13.6 points and 250 yards per contest. They’ve forced multiple turnovers in a game six times this season and have plenty of talent on that side of the ball. While Book makes few mistakes in the air, the Tigers’ heavy pass rush needs to be neutralized.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Trevor Lawrence
Notre Dame’s 2020 defenders have shown a knack for struggling in the early going before making adjustments and keeping opposing offenses in check. The Irish don’t have the luxury of taking their time against a team like Clemson and need to tighten up their run defense after allowing lightly regarded Syracuse to collect 229 yards on the ground for 6.5 yards per carry.
Lawrence’s positive coronavirus test kept him out of the earlier Notre Dame contest, but two years ago, he shredded them for 327 yards and three scores in a national semifinal game. He doesn’t offer much of a running threat, a minor issue considering that he’s thrown for nearly 9,400 yards in his three seasons and remains a strong favorite to be the top pick in next April’s NFL draft.
MLB Drew White vs. RB Travis Etienne
While White’s numbers this season have dropped in comparison to 2019, the steady center of the Notre Dame defense still manages to come up big when it counts. In the earlier Clemson matchup, he collected a season-high nine tackles, including a stop behind the line and knocking away a pass attempt by the Tigers.
Etienne had back-to-back rushing seasons of over 1,600 yards but has struggled this season. That includes a 28-yard effort against Notre Dame that also saw his fumble result in an Irish touchdown. Despite his 2020 struggles, he still represents a receiving threat after grabbing eight tosses for 58 yards in the earlier meeting.
T Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Myles Murphy
Eichenberg has been an island of stability on an Irish line that has had to deal with lineup changes in recent weeks. He’s a solid contender for the prestigious Outland Trophy, a testament to what kind of season he’s had, but he needs another strong performance to allow Book the time to throw or to open holes for Notre Dame runners.
Murphy’s freshman season has mostly lived up to expectations, though he’s hoping for a better performance in this rematch against the Irish. He had just one stop behind the line in last month’s game but still has the quickness to keep the Irish on their toes. The entire Tiger defensive line is dangerous, so keeping Murphy in check would solve one piece of the puzzle.
CB Clarence Lewis vs. WR Cornell Powell
Lewis is in the midst of his first season with the Irish and is coming off his biggest game after making 12 stops (including 10 solo) in the win over Syracuse. He also forced a fumble in that contest and has knocked away a pass in each of the last three games. As a true freshman, he’s facing his biggest challenge yet in this huge clash.
The combination of Powell and Amari Rodgers represents perhaps the most dangerous tandem in college football, with Powell hoping to repeat his six receptions for 161 yards against the Irish from last month. His score in that game got the Tigers on the board, and he offers Lawrence a quality alternative if Rodgers can’t get open.