Notre Dame has beaten one top 5 team in the last ten seasons: a 2020 covid-year victory against #1 Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium in double overtime. The Irish won that game 47-40, despite freshman DJ Uiagalelei throwing for 439 yards and two touchdowns while filling in for All-American Trevor Lawrence.
This year’s Clemson squad is 8-0 ranked #5. The Tigers have made the College Football Playoff six times since its inception.
“As we move forward this week, we obviously know we have a huge challenge ahead of us,” Irish Head Coach Marcus Freeman said.
“A well-respected football program, [well-respected] coach, a great football team that’s coming into Notre Dame Stadium… we’re excited for the opportunity to play Clemson.”
Saturday’s showdown with Clemson is up there with Ohio St. as Notre Dame’s biggest test of the season thus far. Freeman spoke of how the offensive line can measure its progress and how big a victory would be for his Irish.
“Victories get you a great feeling. It gives you a great emotional feeling. It builds confidence,” he said. On the offensive line, who faced #2 Ohio St. in the season opener without all-American Jarrett Patterson, Freeman said the Irish could “see how much better we’ve gotten.”
Freeman often spoke during Monday’s Clemson week press conference of his belief in the Irish and his belief in what the Irish are building.
“What would a win like this do for our program? It’s gonna continue to help us gain confidence in what we’re doing, who we are. It’s that emotional feeling you get when you’re victorious,” he said.
“It would provide reassurance. That what you’re trying to build is working. Yeah [it would provide a boost] it’s confidence [in the things we are building].”
Freeman’s predecessor at Notre Dame was 4-11 against top 10 opponents during his 12 years as head coach. Sometimes, fans, and players, perhaps, approached those big games with an underdog mentality.
That’s not the mentality Freeman wants.
“The belief in what we’re building here… the belief in what our program will attain, that isn’t gonna waiver,” he said.
“But the work, the intentionality of our work, has to continue to change to get the results we want.”
Though Clemson has loads of NFL talent, including on the defensive side of the ball, Freeman considers this a blue-blood, heavyweight matchup – not one of David vs. Goliath.
It’s an opportunity for the Irish to prove themselves, despite slipping up in several games already this season at Notre Dame Stadium.
“Let’s measure ourselves against the best. They’ve got NFL defensive linemen across the board. They’re [the Irish] excited. They’re ready. They’ll be excited for this opportunity,” Freeman said.
A reporter brought up the parallels between Freeman and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, as both were first time head coaches when they were hired in their respective positions.
“If your career can reciprocate Dabo Swinney’s, you’re gonna be dang happy,” Freeman said. He knows Swinney has set a standard at Clemson of competing for national championships and playoff spots year-after-year.
Swinney took over mid-season in 2008 and went 4-3; he then went 9-5 in his first full season. Freeman hopes to better that and draw some inspiration from Notre Dame’s 2020 team.
Freeman said he watched that game at the time, and a few plays are etched into his memory.
“They [the Irish] found a way to pull it out, and even though it was the covid year, there were some students on the field.
It’s a heavyweight battle. That’s what you get when you get a team like Notre Dame and Clemson. Two great, historic programs that get to go and clash it out. It’s probably going to be one of those games that comes down to the last couple of series. Who executes the best.
I remember [former Irish quarterback] Ian Book throwing that long pass to [current Irish wide receiver] Avery Davis (a score that tied the game with 22 seconds left in regulation). There’s a couple of plays that stick out in my mind.”
Freeman said he remembered that the Irish defense “got after the quarterback” to close the game.
For the Irish to grab a big-time victory Saturday against a top 5 and undefeated opponent, and to go down in Notre Dame Stadium lore and etch more – perhaps even more vivid – memories in Freeman’s mind, they must approach the game with belief and not as an underdog.
“I know we’ve got a battle coming; it’s a tall task coming ahead of us,” Freeman said.
“I want [our] guys saying you’re Notre Dame – this is what we do. We play in big games like this. We’ve got a dang good football team. It’s not David vs. Goliath. It’s a heavyweight fight. We’re a good enough football team to win every game we play. This is Notre Dame vs. Clemson… two powerhouse, blue bloods that are gonna go battle Saturday night.”
Can the Irish mentality change? That they are no longer overmatched when they play Ohio St., Alabama, Georgia, or Clemson – the standard bearers lately in college football?
Saturday is statement time.