We’re hours away from kickoff in one of the most anticipated Notre Dame football games in recent years. The Irish have a chance to win their first ACC Championship in their first – and likely last – year as a full member of the conference. All that stands in their way is a Clemson team that is much healthier now than they were six weeks ago when the Irish knocked off the then top-ranked Tigers. Can the Irish pull it off again and knock Clemson out of the playoffs? Let’s dig in.
Can Notre Dame generate a pass rush and force some turnovers?
The key to this game will come down to whether or not Notre Dame can generate a pass rush without sending a ton of blitzes and whether or not that pressure leads to some turnovers. The difference in the game last time was the turnovers Notre Dame generated in the second quarter to build their lead.
This time around, Notre Dame has Trevor Lawrence to deal with. Because of that, the pass rush will have to be more effective this time out. Notre Dame didn’t get to DJ Uiagalelei until the 2nd overtime. If it takes that long again, it will be too late for the Irish.
If Lawrence has time to sit in the pocket, he will make Notre Dame pay. If Notre Dame sends the house and it doesn’t get home, Lawrence will make them pay even more. Clark Lea made North Carolina’s Sam Howell look average. It’s doubtful anyone can scheme something up to make Lawrence look average. Still, if Lea can generate pressure on Lawrence without committing too many extra blitzers while keeping him guessing on coverages, Notre Dame has a shot.
Will Ian Book continue to look like one of the nation’s best QBs?
All of the attention is on Lawrence today since he did not play last time, but one way to neutralize the benefit Clemson is getting from Lawrence’s return is for Book to continue his late-season surge. Tommy Rees has the unenviable task of facing Brent Venables a second time in less than two months in his first year as an offensive coordinator. The one bit of good news in that for Rees is Venables hasn’t ever played a team a second time in the same season before, so this is uncharted territory for him as well.
The challenge for Rees today will be balancing trying to play ball-control offense to keep Clemson’s offense off the field while still being aggressive and taking shots down the field to keep the Clemson defense honest. Enter Ian Book.
Notre Dame does not need Ian Book to be better than Trevor Lawrence today. However, Notre Dame needs Ian Book to be the same Book we saw against Clemson last time and North Carolina a few weeks ago.
Can Notre Dame have early success running the ball again?
Kyren Williams’s 76-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the last game was huge for Notre Dame in so many ways. It showed the Irish they could run on Clemson. It gave them the confidence that they could play with the Tigers early. And it forced Venables to respect the run.
It is doubtful that Notre Dame rips off another 70+ yard run on their first drive today, but they don’t have to. If they can consistently pick up 3-4 yards every carry while limiting negative plays, they’ll be in a position to string drives together again. As long as Williams, Chris Tyree, and C’bo Flemister are consistently getting positive gains on the ground and not getting stopped behind the line of scrimmage, it keeps the playbook open.
With Clemson getting several starters back on defense, this will be a much more significant challenge this time – especially with a new starter at center for the Irish.
Will Clark Lea’s eventual departure be a distraction or a rallying point?
Lea leaving for Vanderbilt could either serve as a distraction or a rallying cry for the Irish defense. Based on player interviews this weekend, I am inclined to think it will be the latter. Lea deserves his shot as a head coach, and his players seem to understand that and be happy for their coach. This isn’t a head coach at a MAC school leaving for a P5 job sticking around to coach a bowl game.
I expect Notre Dame’s defense to play better today than they did in November against the Tigers – even with Lawrence back on the field.
Trick play watch
Clemson tried a few trick plays last time out, while the Irish stayed mainly in their base offense much of the night. We haven’t seen many trick plays at all from Rees in his first year as the offensive coordinator, but if he’s been saving any, today might just be the day. While many think Notre Dame is in the playoffs already, wouldn’t it be a lot nicer to just eliminate Clemson today instead of having to potentially face them a third time in a couple of weeks?
Rees did work Braden Lenzy back into the mix against Syracuse, albeit unsuccessfully. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw plenty of misdirection off of those jet sweeps/pop-pass type plays that Lenzy was so effective at last year.
On the Clemson side of the ball, getting Lawrence back doesn’t mean the Tigers won’t go to their bag of tricks today. If anything, it could make them more likely to since they know they have Lawrence back to potentially mitigate any risks on trick plays. Notre Dame has to be disciplined in their assignments to avoid getting burned.
Can Notre Dame play the disrespect card successfully?
Ian Book told ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit on Thursday that they’ve heard a lot already about the players Clemson has coming back. In the official WatchND hype video, they superimposed a bunch of tweets and quotes about Notre Dame being over-rated. It seems like the Irish are leaning into the disrespect card. It’s an ea easy card to play here – especially when the Irish are a double-digit underdog to a team they just beat six weeks ago.
The question is whether or not they can play the disrespect card successfully. Last year, heading into the Michigan game, Notre Dame released a hype video acknowledging how they came up short in big games before only to fall flat on their faces in Ann Arbor last October. This team has come a long way since then, and they haven’t given any indication that such a performance is possible, but playing the disrespect card and executing are two different things.
I have waffled back and forth on this game a lot. Like almost hourly. I’ve gone from Notre Dame could lose big to thinking that if Notre Dame just eliminates their mistakes from the last game, maybe they could win reasonably comfortably. Some of those positive thoughts have come in the evenings after indulging in a few strong double-IPAs, but so what.
Notre Dame is a confident team with veteran leadership up and down its roster. They know what’s at stake, and they see the opportunity in front of them. If Brian Kelly’s attitude in his presser yesterday is any indication of where his team is at mentally today, I like Notre Dame’s chance quite a bit.
I have not picked against Notre Dame all season – including the last Clemson game – so why start now?
Notre Dame 31, Clemson 30