Saturday afternoon’s battle between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Clemson Tigers brings plenty of risk for Marcus Freeman’s squad. A loss could wreak havoc on the team’s hopes of competing in a major bowl game or even sneaking into the playoff conversation. The fact that the Tigers are currently scuffling offers little solace, given that this game is one in which they’d love to spring the modest upset.
It’s not likely that the Irish will be able to match the dominance of their last two victories. Yet, in this particular situation, they’ll simply be content to walk out of Death Valley on Saturday with their eighth win of the season. Getting a feel for the matchup requires a perusal of some pertinent number comparisons between the two schools.
The only time the Notre Dame running game has been held in check this season was in the loss at Louisville. Now, Audric Estime appears to be back in form, standing just 19 yards away from his rushing total of last year, 920. That yardage has come at a clip of over six yards per carry. As a unit, the Irish ground game has gained 1,477 yards on 4.9 yards per carry.
The cloud over Clemson’s running game appears to be clearing with Will Shipley likely to be back after entering concussion protocol following last Saturday’s game. The Tigers need his production, which includes 515 yards on 4.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns. He’s also a receiving threat out of the backfield with 20 catches and works in tandem with Phil Mafah. In Mafah’s case, he’s run for 439 yards on 6.0 yards per carry and six touchdowns, with 15 receptions. Together, the duo have accounted for just over 75 percent of Clemson’s rushing in 2023.
Getting it Done on Third Down
For the season, Notre Dame has only allowed its opponents to convert 47 of 129 third-down opportunities, a success rate of 36.4 percent. That’s not among the national leaders, though in recent weeks, they’ve sharply improved their status in this department. Just 18 conversions in 52 third-down attempts is what Irish opponents have to show for the past four games, with Notre Dame coming off its season-best 10 of 11 stops in the rout of Pittsburgh.
Clemson has had success on 43 percent of its third-down chances, though the numbers over the past three weeks have shown a decline. In those games, they succeeded on just 17 of 47 attempts, slightly lower than Notre Dame’s season-long percentage. Stopping the Tigers from moving the chains on a regular basis would keep their rabid fan base in check and make a path to victory just a bit easier.
Holding Them Off
During his weekly press conference, Freeman indicated that improvements to address front-line issues that resulted in a wave of penalties have been made. Those penalties became obvious in the Duke win and were followed by the debacle at Louisville. However, Notre Dame has since only allowed one sack, helping the offense to join the defensive and special teams surges that have resulted in 106 points in the past two games.
Clemson’s offensive line has allowed 16 sacks on the year and the breakdown is telling in how effective getting pressure on quarterback Cade Klubnik has been. In the Tigers’ four wins, opponents only managed to collect four sacks. That’s in stark contrast to Clemson getting sacked 12 times during their four defeats, including a season-high five times in the loss to Miami.
Forcing the Issue
When it comes to holding onto the ball, Notre Dame has largely had success this season, with just two glitches standing out. The five turnovers against Louisville and Sam Hartman’s two first-quarter picks last Saturday make up seven of the nine miscues on the year. On the defensive side, the Irish have been a machine during the past two games when it comes to taking the ball away. In each of those games, opponents have coughed up the ball five times. That marks a dramatic shift from the first seven contests when they managed to collect only eight turnovers total.
Clemson has been consistent in the wrong way when it comes to turnovers, committing at least one in every game. Over the past three games, which includes a pair of losses, the Tigers have lost the ball seven times. That’s nearly half of the 15 turnovers they’ve allowed in 2023, with two-thirds of them coming on fumbles. Holding onto the ball is an obvious priority for Notre Dame, but the link between Clemson’s success at forcing turnovers and the result of a game is telling. In their four wins, opponents of the Tigers have lost the ball nine times, with only three turnovers forced in the four losses. In short, simply holding onto the ball on Saturday appears to be a key ingredient in the recipe for the Irish’s eighth victory of the season.