Notre Dame makes its debut in the college football playoff on Saturday as the third ranked Fighting Irish take on number two Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. The venue is lavish AT&T Stadium near Dallas, TX, which is also the home of the NFL’s Cowboys and often referred to by its flamboyant owner’s name as Jerry (Jones) World.
Both teams are undefeated, although Clemson has an edge in playoff experience as this will be its fourth consecutive appearance in college football’s final four. The Tigers won the national championship following the 2016 regular season. This contest will be nationally televised by ESPN starting at 4:00 pm Eastern time.
Coach Dabo Swinney is the architect of Clemson’s ascension to the elite level since his appointment in the middle of the 2008 season. By 2011, the Tigers had turned the corner, but a 70-33 thrashing by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl signified that the rebuilding effort was not finished. Swinney continued to recruit with an emphasis on defense, and it paid off. From 2012 to the present day, Clemson has gone on an 85-11 run and is a fixture alongside Alabama at the top of the polls.
Swinney is the first coach in college football history to win a bowl game five consecutive years against teams coached by men who had already won a national championship. It’s equally impressive that his teams have finished among the nation’s top 10 in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report seven of the last eight years. Since 2009, according to the Clemson official athletic web site, 198 of 202 seniors graduated, and the other four are in the NFL.
The Tigers are heavy favorites this week, which is no surprise because their impressive roster is dotted with All-American linemen. Five Clemson players earned at least one first-team selection, featuring defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who was a unanimous pick, and Dexter Lawrence, a 350-pound wrecking ball. The bad news is Lawrence will likely miss the game due to a failed drug test, which revealed a positive result for a performance enhancing substance. “Obviously Dexter is a starter and a very, very significant player on our team,” Swinney said.
The defensive line still boasts ends Clelin Ferrell, whose 17 sacks earned him consensus All-America honors, and Austin Bryant, who was an All-American in 2017. In addition, linebacker Tre Lamar and cornerback Trayvon Mullen were named to the second team. Rounding out the list is offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt, a consensus first teamer.
While Clemson’s defense and its 46 sacks are imposing, Notre Dame has a solid unit with no obvious weaknesses. The Irish cannot match the Tigers’ pure talent up front, but they play with high effort and have better depth than in recent seasons. They will also get a boost with the return of tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who suffered a broken foot in the season opener.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. CLEMSON’S DEFENSE
The Tigers are not without answers if Dexter Lawrence is sidelined. Backups Nyles Pinkney and Albert Huggins averaged more than 20 snaps per game in 2018, and were very productive. The biggest matchup will be on the outside, however, where Ferrell will attempt to terrorize Irish tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey. Both are healthy now, but it may not matter given Ferrell’s speed and athletic ability.
Clemson allowed a mere 2.4 yards per rush this year, and Notre Dame will have to work hard to create holes for Dexter Williams. Offensive Coordinator Chip Long has used misdirection runs to counter fast defenses that over pursue, and he should be ready with that adjustment well before halftime if the need arises.
Isaiah Simmons, Kendall Joseph flank Tre Lamar at the linebacker position for the Tigers. This trio leads the team in tackles, which is no surprise since the front four routinely occupies any would-be blockers. Joseph, the lone senior in the group, is also a threat as a pass rusher from the weak side.
The Clemson secondary is relatively young, and is the least heralded component of the Tiger defense despite the presence of Mullen. Notwithstanding the relentless pressure brought against opposing quarterbacks, the defensive backs have only five interceptions while linebackers account for the four others. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables was not happy after the Tigers surrendered 510 yards passing and five touchdowns to South Carolina in its regular season finale. “It was painful,” he said. “I’m embarrassed we put that product on the field tonight, that’s my responsibility. My name is all over it. Obviously, I didn’t coach them very well tonight. It’s my responsibility to get our guys ready and we were not as sharp as we’ve been in the past few games.”
Notre Dame will attack this group, provided Ian Book has time to look downfield. Clemson may elect to mirror USC’s largely successful defensive game plan by bringing a safety into the box to stuff the run while trusting cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Mullen in man coverage on the Irish wide receivers. If the Tigers can get away with this gamble, it will make life difficult for Notre Dame. Chris Finke had some opportunities against the Trojans as the slot receiver due to his above average speed, but Notre Dame could use a few more weapons in this game to stretch the field.
If Clemson relies on its base defense to stop the run while keeping the safeties back in coverage, the key for the Irish becomes their ability to block the front four. Book may also roll out on occasion with a run or pass option to relieve pressure, but ultimately his linemen need to do their jobs and Williams needs to remain a legitimate threat in the running game.
CLEMSON’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Tiger attack averaged 45 points per game this season, and running back Travis Etienne is its centerpiece. The sophomore ran for more than eight yards per carry and scored 21 touchdowns. The team has rushed for 260 yards per outing behind an offensive line led by seniors Justin Falcinelli at center and the All-American Hyatt at left tackle. The five-man unit is the same group that opened the season.
Clemson’s offense jelled when quarterback Trevor Lawrence took over the starting role in the fifth game. The 6’6” freshman has completed 65% of his passes with 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Lawrence has several talented targets at his disposal, and he spreads the ball around equally to sophomore starters Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers, along with clutch third down receiver Hunter Renfroe, who is a senior.
Higgins leads the team with ten touchdowns, but the most dangerous player in the group may be freshman backup Justyn Ross. The immensely talented 6’4” speedster is second on the team with six scores and boasts a 21-yard average for his 34 receptions. The Tigers always seem to create favorable matchups against any type of coverage, and Lawrence delivers the football with impeccable accuracy.
Notre Dame must find ways to disrupt the timing and flow of the passing game or it will be a long afternoon of chasing receivers downfield. While cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride are more than solid, the Irish must find a reliable nickel defender to handle a third wideout. They have tried youngsters Houston Griffith and Tariq Bracy in this role, but passing teams including USC have successfully attacked them. Veteran Nick Coleman is the default choice in this contest, and his performance will be critical to the outcome.
Notre Dame’s senior specialists have performed well this season. Justin Yoon is nearly automatic on field goals under 45 yards, and the indoor venue won’t hurt that a bit. Tyler Newsome has suffered a few shanks and a block this season, but the extra time off should add extra energy to his punts. Kick coverage has been inconsistent since the opener against Michigan, so this is an area of concern to watch. The Irish return game is only dangerous when Finke has room to bring back a punt, but Clemson has allowed both a punt and kickoff return for touchdown this season.
Greg Huegel is the primary kicker for the Tigers. He is nine of 13 on field goals with a long of 49 yards, and has converted all 68 of his extra point attempts. Punter Will Spiers has average distance, but is adept at pinning teams inside the 20 and avoiding a touchback. Rodgers handles punt returns for Clemson and appears to be their most dangerous special teams player. He has a long scoring effort to his credit. Cornell Powell is the primary kickoff return man, but don’t be surprised to see Etienne back there as well.
Teams often prepare a fake punt play for games of this magnitude, so both sides need to be aware of the possibilities.
The Tigers are explosive in all three phases of the game, so Notre Dame will have to play mistake free football in the face of constant pressure. The Irish are more methodical on offense, but capable of denting Clemson’s allegedly impenetrable forward wall. They have a puncher’s chance in this matchup, but they must start well so as not to quickly fall behind and watch matters spiral out of control.
Clemson’s playoff experience and Notre Dame’s lack thereof may become evident, particularly if the Irish sit back on defense as they did in the early going at USC. Lawrence cannot be allowed to get comfortable, or his pinpoint passing will defeat even tight coverage downfield.
The Irish offense lacks the speed component on the outside that makes opponents defend the entire field. Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Chris Finke are quality players, but there are freshmen on the roster who can outrun them. Coach Brian Kelly has had a month to get Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins or Lawrence Keys ready to contribute. The latter three can be utilized without burning a year of eligibility, while Austin has caught five passes in ten games. Kelly has intimated this week that one or more of these players will get a chance to contribute.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Which quarterback will demonstrate the passing accuracy we saw during the regular season?
Can Clemson’s defensive line dominate without Dexter Lawrence in the middle?
Will Dexter Williams or Travis Etienne rush for 100 yards?
Which coaching staff will make quicker and more effective in-game adjustments?
Can Notre Dame cover the swift Tiger receivers?
Will either special teams be able to tilt the outcome in their favor?
Which team will best convert its red zone opportunities?
Can the Irish freshmen receivers help ignite the offense?
Will the Irish put to rest any question that they belong in these playoffs?
Notre Dame must hold its own in the trenches to have a chance at victory, as the Tigers have superior talent at the offensive skill positions. The Irish must sustain drives enough to maintain field position and provide sufficient rest to the defense, who will have its hands full. They will also have to minimize penalties and turnovers, which is a challenge when the opponent can create havoc with speed and power. Although this Irish team has exceeded expectations all season, has an undeniable chemistry, and has restored pride to the fan base, it’s difficult to imagine they will be able to outscore the Tigers through four relentless quarters of football. The last time I predicted a loss, however, the Irish turned in arguably their best performance of the season against Syracuse. So we have that going for us.
CLEMSON 31 NOTRE DAME 23