The top goal at the start of the 2018 Notre Dame football season was to compete in the College Football Playoff. That’s been accomplished by reaching the Cotton Bowl, though it only marks the first phase of the competition. The winner of the Notre Dame-Clemson scuffle will face the Alabama-Oklahoma victor for the national title on January 7.
The Irish last competed for the national title in January 2013, when it was still the BCS Championship. They ended up on the wrong end of a 42-14 rout against Alabama and last played in the Cotton Bowl a quarter-century ago, For Clemson, this marks the fourth consecutive year that they’ve reached the playoffs, having won the national title two years ago in a rematch against Alabama from the year before.
Listed below are some of the key matchups to watch in this battle:
QB Ian Book vs. Clemson Defense
Book has largely thrived behind center since being inserted to start in the Wake Forest contest, though he has had some occasional bumps along the way. Avoiding the ferocious pass rush of Clemson, which has racked up 46 sacks in their 13 games this year is an absolute necessity, though he’s shown enough mobility to make things happen.
While their depth up front presents an amazing array of talent, the Tiger pass defense has been torched twice in 2018 during games against Texas A&M and South Carolina, with mid-range passing by Book likely the best strategy in this case. In those two games, Clemson allowed a combined, more than one-third of their season total in that department.
QB Trevor Lawrence vs. Notre Dame Defense
Lawrence entered the year as a true freshman and began slowly by averaging just 15 pass attempts in the five September games. Since that time, he’s been unleashed and has averaged double that amount of throws over the last eight matchups. He has yet to face any adversity, having thrown for over 2,600 yards, connecting for 24 touchdowns while only tossing four interceptions.
One of the key facets of the 2018 Notre Dame defense has been their ability to force turnovers, thanks to a quality pass rush and talent in the secondary. The Irish have snagged 12 enemy passes this year, led by Jalen Elliott’s four, and need to keep the heat on Lawrence in order to pull the upset.
ILB Te’von Coney vs. RB Travis Etienne
As Notre Dame’s leading tackler, Coney’s name should be prominent against Clemson, having put together a consistently strong season. On four different occasions, he’s reached double-digits in the tackling department, but he’ll need plenty of help in keeping a runner like Etienne in check.
That’s because after having gained 1,464 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns on the ground this season, Etienne’s impact on this game could spell the difference on the scoreboard. The fact that he’s averaging 8.3 yards on every carry shows his level of explosiveness and danger to the Irish title hopes.
Notre Dame Offensive Line vs. Clemson Defensive Line
Ordinarily, this type of matchup would pinpoint a single area, but since Clemson has no weak links on their front line, the challenge for Notre Dame’s line is quite formidable. Tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey have been effective, though Hainsey still has his issues with false starts. At guard, Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks need to protect the interior and find time to open holes for Irish runners, while Sam Mustipher’s status as a second team All-American and Rimington finalist is a testament to his talents.
However, that crew is up against a starting quartet that’s collected 23 sacks and 48 tackles-for-loss. Whether it’s ends Clelin Ferrell or Austin Bryant surging from the outside or tackle Christian Wilkins pounding through the interior, there’s no chance to take any of them for granted. Clemson could be without star DT Dexter Lawrence though after his suspension for failing a NCAA administered drug test for a banned substance. More clarity on Lawrence’s status should be known on Thursday though some reports have said that the chances of Lawrence playing are slim at this point.
Even without Lawrence though, the Clemson defensive line is still extremely formidable. Keeping Ferrell in check off the edge is imperative, given that he’ll be coming from Book’s blind side.
RB Dexter Williams vs. MLB Kendall Joseph
Despite sitting out the first four games this season, Williams stands just 59 yards from the 1,000-yard threshold. His average per carry of 6.6 yards is the byproduct of a number of huge runs that give the Irish a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. If he can find a way to get past the swarming front line of the Tigers, he could have a big day.
Joseph is a senior who’s steady, but doesn’t bring the level of production that Coney has over the past year. Of course, playing behind a line like Clemson’s can reduce anyone’s workload, though Joseph has had a pair of double-digit tackling performances this year. His big game came in the 77-16 rout of Louisville, where he had 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks.