The long wait is finally almost over. In a little over 24 hours Notre Dame and Clemson will kickoff in the Cotton Bowl and the College Football Playoffs will officially be upon us. Notre Dame is currently sitting as a two touchdown underdog with no one outside of Notre Dame fans giving them much of a chance to knockoff the Tigers and advance to the title game. Thankfully the game isn’t decided on paper and that is why we play the games. Lets unpack this one as we all get ready for the game.
What Worries Me This Week
Notre Dame’s ability to run the ball. Everyone knows that Clemson has one of the best defensive lines in the country even with the loss of Dexter Lawrence who will be sitting this one out after failing a NCAA administered drug test for having a banned substance in his system. Clemson is just going to plug in another highly rated defensive lineman into the mix. To win this game, Notre Dame has to be able to run the ball – especially early in the game. The Irish have had trouble doing that in some of the bigger matchups this year.
Notre Dame did run the ball on Florida State’s highly rated run defense, but the Clemson defense is a whole other beast. If Clemson forces Notre Dame into being one dimensional, it could be a long day for the Irish. Look for the Irish to try and use some misdirection to take advantage of Clemson’s aggressiveness with two back sets featuring Dexter Williams and Jafar Armstrong. If the Irish can get Williams or Armstrong in situations where they are one on one in space, they can have some success.
The Clemson pass rush. Just like above, the Clemson defensive front is worrisome in the passing game. And Notre Dame’s offensive line hasn’t been great throughout the year. It did get better as the season progressed and they settled into a starting lineup that featured Aaron Banks. This is the first game this year where the loss of Alex Bars will really be felt. If Notre Dame isn’t able to protect Book, they will not have a chance.
Clemson’s rushing attack. On the flip side of the ball, we know that Clemson is going to want to run the ball as well and they feature one of the best running backs in the nation to do so. Travis Etienne ran for 1,463 yards on just 176 attempts this year (8.3 yards per carry) and found the endzone 21 times on the ground.
The good news is that Texas A&M did have some success in bottling up Etienne and the Clemson running attack. Etienne ran for just 44 yards on the Aggie defense while the Tigers totaled just 115 yards on 32 attempts. The architect of that defensive gamplan was none other than former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko. I am sure that Clark Lea has tapped into his old mentor on what worked and didn’t work in slowing down that rushing attack. The only problem is that the Clemson offense has changed substantially since then with the insertion of Trevor Lawrence just as the Irish offense changed with the switch to Ian Book.
If Notre Dame is not able to bottle up the Clemson rushing attack and force Lawrence to make plays, the Irish are going to get into a shootout they likely cannot keep up with.
Notre Dame trying to do too much new offensively. Brian Kelly more than hinted that they will look to a young wide receiver to add some speed to the Irish offense since the receiving trio of Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Chris Finke isn’t winning any track meets. The obvious candidates there are freshmen Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys – both of whom haven’t played but still can without burning a redshirt season. Sophomore Michael Young is another player who has top end speed who hasn’t played that much this year.
My only concern here is that Notre Dame tries to do too much new instead of sticking primarily to what got them here. I still remember the fleaflicker to start last year’s Georgia game and worry they will try something similar. That play told the Georgia defense that Notre Dame didn’t have confidence in its own offense to go toe to toe with them. I love the idea of getting more speed on the field, but not if it means trying to do too much.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Notre Dame’s ability to rush the passer. If Notre Dame does keep the Clemson running game in check, I have confidence in Notre Dame’s ability to get pressure on Trevor Lawrence with its front four just as they have all year long. Julian Okwara coming off the edge should be able to disrupt Lawrence and hopefully force him into a few mistakes. Lawrence has not been rattled much this year because the Clemson line has protected him. Notre Dame has to be the first defense to rattle the freshman to have any chance tomorrow.
Notre Dame’s secondary keeping up with Clemson. Clemson has some elite speed at wide receiver, but the Irish secondary is equipped to at least keep up with them. Troy Pride has blazing speed and no cornerback in the country was better at defending the go route than Pride so if Clemson tries to test him, he will be well prepared. If anything, Clemson will likely try to challenge Julian Love deep since even though he’s a consensus All-American, the one tiny hole in his game is his long speed.
Notre Dame’s safeties have improved drastically throughout the season and will be ready to keep the Clemson defense in check as well. What Notre Dame can’t do though is what they did against USC when they let JT Daniels complete a ton of easy passes early and gain confidence. They have to make Lawrence uncomfortable in the pocket early. Clark Lea will have a fine balancing act of trying to scheme around limiting deep plays and not making it too easy for Lawrence.
Ian Book. I don’t care what anyone says, the Ian Book we saw after his injury against Northwestern was not the same Ian Book we saw before. He played through the pain, but I think it was clear that the rib injury he sustained impacted his performance against Syracuse and USC. He was just missing throws that he normally doesn’t miss and wasn’t getting as much on his throws as he usually does. He doesn’t have a cannon like Brandon Wimbush, but when he heaved that hail mary to the endzone against USC it seemed clear to me that he couldn’t put everything he had into it.
A month off for those ribs to fully heal should have done wonders for Book and I expect that we will see the same quarterback that we saw early in the season. Clemson will however be looking to confuse Book like Pitt did when Book had his worst game of the year. Book can’t turn the ball over if Notre Dame is going to have a chance.
Notre Dame being distracted or overwhelmed by the moment. Last year in Miami this team looked like deer in headlights. The moment was clearly too big for them and it showed on the field. Notre Dame has spent the last 13 months making sure that doesn’t happen again. They went into Lane Stadium and played well from the start even in a hostile environment. They played four of their last five games away from Notre Dame Stadium. They are prepared for this.
Leading up to the game, reports out of Dallas are that the team is loose and ready to play. I will be shocked if we see a team that even slightly resembles the one that we saw in Miami last November or even the one we saw in Miami in January 2013.
Players to Watch
- Kevin Austin – The attention this month has been on if Notre Dame will try to get Lenzy or Keys behind the Clemson defense, but Austin could be the freshman who really steps up tomorrow. Michael Young scored a TD after not playing much as a freshman in the Citrus Bowl last year and it would not shock me if Austin gets his first career TD tomorrow.
- Cole Kmet – Kmet was slowed this year by a nagging ankle injury but like Book, a month off should do him well. Watch for Notre Dame to use him to attack the middle of the field tomorrow – something they have not done a lot of this year.
- Julian Okwara – If he has a good game, Notre Dame will have a chance to win. If he doesn’t it likely means the Notre Dame pass rush didn’t get home.
- Liam Eichenberg – He got better as the year progressed, but safe to say that Notre Dame needs Eichenberg to play the best game of his young career tomorrow.
- Jafar Armstrong – Another player who will have benefited from the month off. I expect the staff to get creative in how they use Armstrong tomorrow – especially in those two back sets with Dexter Williams.
- Khalid Kareem – If it felt like Kareem was getting banged up all season long, it’s because he was. He played through minor injuries all year and could be in for another breakout game like he had against Michigan. Remember how disruptive he was in the opener? A fully rested Kareem is in store for Clemson tomorrow.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way quick. Yes, Notre Dame needs to play their best game of the year to win, but even if they don’t, this game will not be as easy as the media is making it out to be for Clemson. Notre Dame can hang with Clemson even if they do make some mistakes. They might not be able to overcome big mistakes and still win, but this will be a game from start to finish.
I want to predict that Notre Dame will shock the world and win this game, but I am a superstitious person and do not want to jinx the Irish tomorrow. I am confident that this game will be much closer than anyone – including Clemson – is expecting it to be and even think Notre Dame will jump out to an early lead. In the end though, I see Clemson waking up and winning a close game late.
That said, I will be there tomorrow decked out in green screaming my lungs out and an willing to lose my voice in the process if it helps the Irish get a W.
Clemson 31, Notre Dame 26