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Dual-threat Watson to challenge ND defense

| Friday, October 2, 2015

The final stat line read 14-of-19 passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns to go along with two more scores on the ground, including a scamper from nine yards out, in a win.

It would be a solid game for any quarterback, especially one facing an arch rival who had beaten his team for five straight years.

And almost unbelievable for a player with a torn ACL.

Yet that’s exactly what then-freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson did for Clemson in the Tigers’ 35-17 win over rival South Carolina in November last season.

Fast forward 11 months and one surgery, and Watson is back to full health. A preseason Heisman favorite, he ranks among the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation this season. He averages more than 200 yards passing and 30 yards rushing per game. And the Notre Dame defense has to figure out a way to contain him Saturday night.

“He’s a game wrecker,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Watson during Wednesday’s ACC coaches teleconference. “He can take the game and wreck it for you.”

“I mean he’s a very, very talented quarterback,” graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “He can do kind of everything within the offense: He operates through the offense exceptionally well, he has a tremendous amount of poise at the line of scrimmage. You know, he doesn’t really seem to get rattled, makes all the throws, runs exceptionally well.”

It’s this complete package that will challenge Notre Dame and stretch its secondary under the lights.

“He’s a true dual-threat quarterback,” Irish graduate student cornerback Matthias Farley said. “He plays with his seat. He has a great arm, accurate passes. Puts the ball where his receivers can get to it and gives his receivers opportunities to go make plays. And then also, he will stand in the pocket.

“It’s not like he’s going to look to run and just get out of there at the first sign of pressure. He’s going to stay poised, and he’s a very calm quarterback, which I think manifests itself in the way he plays and also the way his teammates respond to him.”

As well as Watson can scramble — he’s second on the team in rushing yards behind sophomore running back Wayne Gallman — it’s this poise that has Notre Dame’s attention.

“He keeps you in a position where you’ve got to defend him as a runner and a thrower,” Kelly said. “He’s efficient in throwing the football. He’s got arm talent as a runner, which is a unique skill set.

“If [Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney] wanted him to be a pocket passer, he could be a pocket passer. That’s how good he can throw it.”

Irish players have mentioned one game in particular multiple times this week when asked about the challenge Watson presents: Notre Dame’s 50-43 win over North Carolina last season. Although the Irish escaped with the win, Tar Heels junior quarterback Marquise Williams picked apart the Irish defense all game, throwing for 303 yards and two touchdowns while also piling up another score and 132 yards on the ground.

“We definitely remember what happened last year against North Carolina, and we definitely don’t want anything like that to happen again,” senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day said. “So we’re definitely tight on our rush lanes and our assignments this week and make sure that we collapse the pocket and make sure [Watson] scrambles into one of the other three defensive linemen.”

On Wednesday, Swinney broke down what he expects the Irish defense to throw at Watson.

“They’ve got more experience than we do, but I think our types of players are very similar,” Swinney said. “They’re outstanding up front in their front seven, and they’re back end guys. Just a bunch of juniors and seniors, a bunch of guys that played a lot of ball.”

“They’re a three and four-man type of front, mix up their pressures, do a great job with skill pressure, boundary pressure, disguising their coverages. They’ll get up and challenge you from a coverage standpoint, and they’ll also get back and play some quarters-type coverage. Just a very good group.”

Swinney also said he might ask Watson to run the ball more Saturday night, something he said he expects Notre Dame to do with sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer as well.

“On the offensive side, we think we’ve got a great quarterback,” Swinney said. “[The Irish] certainly do. Both teams want to get the quarterback involved in the running game.”

Day, though, said the defensive line has one goal early in the game: get to Watson.

“We definitely want to get after him early, especially up front, make sure we rush the passer as well as we can,” Day said.

“Make sure we don’t let him become a problem.”

About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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