The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are coming off their second straight blowout victory but now face a challenging matchup on Saturday against the Clemson Tiger. Dabo Swinney’s squad is reeling at the moment with a 4-4 record and in the midst of a two-game losing streak. However, this clash will take place in their vaunted home, nicknamed Death Valley for the many opponents who have come up on the short end over the years.
The woes of the Tigers help explain why this matchup that’s been a prime-time battle in recent years has been relegated to a noontime start. Yet, despite Clemson’s comparatively hard times, it’s a certainty that Marcus Freeman and his staff will try to make sure that the Irish remain at the top of their game.
Below is a look at some of the important matchups fans will be watching on Saturday:
QB Sam Hartman vs. Clemson Defense
Hartman had some issues during the opening quarter of the Pittsburgh rout, throwing two interceptions and then watching a drive stall out on fourth down. Still, those mistakes quickly became footnotes as Notre Dame proceeded to obliterate the Panthers over the next two quarters. Against Clemson, being in sync with his offensive line in this game is a top goal. That will help avoid the penalty and sack issues that emerged during earlier games with raucous opposing crowds.
Though four losses dot the Tigers’s schedule, only two of them came when the defense struggled. Those came in the opening night upset at Duke and the October 21 loss at Miami. Like Notre Dame, Clemson has gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks, even if the sack total doesn’t make that clear. However, outside of four interceptions in non-conference action, the Tigers have only managed to pick off a pair of passes during six games of ACC action.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Cade Klubnik
Two consecutive games with multiple big plays and playing consistent shutdown defense are why Notre Dame has outscored its past two opponents by a score of 106-27. Safety Xavier Watts has been on fire when it comes to collecting interceptions. However, the defense as a whole barely budged when Pitt made an effort to challenge them last Saturday. One of the main reasons for this dominance is due to the team’s effort in third down situations.
Klubnik took over the starting role late last season and has remained behind center to throw for over 1,900 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2023. He’s thrown five interceptions this season, three of them coming in the past two games and one resulting in a pick-six on Saturday for North Carolina State. Clemson’s offensive line has largely been able to keep him upright, with his mobility being average at best.
MLB J.D. Bertrand vs. RB Will Shipley/Phil Mafah
Bertrand remains Notre Dame’s top tackler and is right behind Howard Cross when it comes to stops behind the line. He’s been the leader of the defense for a while now and is one of the reasons why this unit has been so impenetrable of late. He plays with plenty of emotion, which can sometimes cause issues, such as the personal foul he was assessed late in Saturday’s first half.
The inclusion of both Shipley and Mafah is because the duo makes up a good portion of the Clemson offense, with a combined 954 rushing yards and 35 pass receptions on the year. In addition, Shipley’s status is currently up in the air after he left Saturday’s game and is now in concussion protocol. A decision about whether he’ll play isn’t likely until later in the week. If he’s not able to go, that puts more pressure on Mafah to put a dent in the Irish run defense.
T Joe Alt/Blake Fisher vs. DE Tomarrion (T.J.) Parker
Since Parker will be used as a strongside rusher, both Fisher and Alt will need to be on their toes. In most cases, the pair have helped make Sam Hartman’s life easier. However, the two breakdowns the offensive line has had this season have both come in the type of situation they’ll be facing here. That means making sure their snap counts are on point and that they block out the loud and unforgiving crowd noise.
Clemson has had a number of talented defensive linemen in recent years and Parker is just the latest. As a freshman, he leads the team in sacks with four and is tied for the team lead in tackles-for-loss. He compiled those numbers over a five-game run but has largely been neutralized in the last two games, Alt and Fisher will likely be studying the Tigers’ games against Miami and North Carolina State to see what works best for keeping Parker in check.