The Grudge Match: Notre Dame vs. Clemson 2.0

Author: Englehart, Matthew

The Grudge Match: Notre Dame vs. Clemson 2.0

This weekend, South Bend will host an undefeated matchup between No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Notre Dame. It is a game that has been circled on the calendar since the Tigers beat the Irish in the 2018 College Football Playoff Semifinal, and Notre Dame’s addition to the ACC for the season has only added to the excitement surrounding the game. The Irish and the Tigers are the only remaining unbeaten teams in the ACC, so the winner will control their destiny to earn a trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship. The Tigers opened as 3 point favorites, but the line quickly jumped to 7 as bettors revealed their lack of confidence in the Irish.           

Focusing first on the offenses, the Tigers have been led by their tremendous backfield tandem of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. Both are rated as the top draft prospects at their respective positions and have made immense impacts on offense since stepping on the field as freshmen, but Clemson will make the trip to South Bend without Lawrence after he tested positive for COVID-19.

Lawrence has been the starting quarterback since replacing Kelly Bryant as a true freshman in 2018, but it will be time for star freshman DJ Uiagalelei to step up after leading Clemson past Boston College the week prior. In his first career start, Uiagalelei didn’t miss a beat and rallied the Tigers from an 18-point second quarter deficit to remain undefeated. Coming out of high school, Uiagalelei was a five-star recruit praised for his poise and arm strength. If he is going to beat a strong Irish defense in the top five showdown, he will need to rely on these traits and several of his playmakers. Look for Amari Rodgers, who leads the ACC in yards and touchdowns up to this point in the season, to relieve some of this pressure in Uiagalelei’s biggest start of his young career.

Standing next to Uiagalelei in the backfield is Etienne, the back-to-back ACC Player of the Year. Etienne was the Tigers’ leading rusher in his first three seasons, and made the unexpected decision to  return for his senior season.           

The Irish are also led by their backfield tandem of Ian Book and Kyren Williams, but the Irish have been focused on the run, totaling 1,159 yards on the ground through five games. The ground game has been dominant to this point behind an offensive line that has five returning starters and good blocking tight ends. As a redshirt freshman, Williams leads the Irish in rushing with over 500 yards and five touchdowns. Book brings the composure and experience that this Irish offense needs as a third-year starter and has been able to take care of the ball with only one turnover, which came in the season opener.

The strong suit of this Irish team, though, is its defense, which leads the ACC in both yards and points per game. A defense that is strong on all three levels, the Irish have held four of its five opponents to under 14 points while only forcing six turnovers and 12 sacks.

Even though Clemson’s offense gets more of the attention, its defense could be just as good, as it is right behind the Irish’s in yards and points per game. The Clemson defense has also recorded over double the amount of turnovers and sacks as the Irish defense. Both defenses are coached by two of the best in the country in Clark Lea and Brent Venables.

The game will depend largely on the matchups between receivers and cornerbacks for both teams. To this point, the Irish wide receivers have totaled only 33 catches and none of them have over 200 yards receiving on the year. Conversely, Clemson’s defense is third in the country in passing yards per game. If the Irish receivers are unable to create separation from the Clemson secondary, it could be a long night for Book in the pocket.

More importantly, it will be Notre Dame’s secondary that may decide the outcome of the game. The Irish secondary has been strong up to this point, but it has not faced a passing attack like Clemson’s. If cornerbacks Nick McCloud, TaRiq Bracy and Clarence Lewis can keep Amari Rodgers and Frank Ladson Jr. in check, it will force Clemson to run the ball with Etienne.

The game will mark the best opponent that each of these teams has faced so far this year.  Notre Dame  will have the weather and home-field advantage in their favor. Look for this game to be one that could go down to the wire, as the Irish want revenge for 2018 and to prove that they are a playoff contender yet again.