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Head to head: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

| Friday, October 2, 2015

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Sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer has been solid in his first two starts: Just one interception, generally good decisions and poise all have been impressive thus far. But to go on the road into Death Valley is a whole different matter. Once again, he won’t be asked to beat Clemson all on his own, but there were several unforced errors against UMass that do not bode well. Several of his throws came up well short of their targets, and a few others failed to hit his targets in stride.

That being said, he has the advantage of throwing to junior receiver Will Fuller, who ranks near the top of most receiving categories in the country. Fuller and the rest of the Irish receiving corps have the ability to make Kizer look much better than he is.

Clemson’s passing defense ranks among the top 15 in the nation in yards allowed. Yes, the Tigers have yet to face anyone of consequence, but holding opponents to 146 yards per game and just one passing touchdown is still impressive. And they have the advantage of playing at home.



At this point, it’s safe to say senior C.J. Prosise’s transition from receiver to running back has gone about as well as Notre Dame could have hoped. He has 600 yards on the year, is averaging more than eight yards per rush and has scored six times. At the beginning of the year, Brian Kelly was saying he didn’t want to tire Prosise out by having him take 25 carries per game, and to this point in the season, he hasn’t needed to push that limit.

In addition, the freshman duo of Josh Adams and Dexter Williams got plenty of work against Massachusetts this past week and shined, something Kelly said was especially valuable.

Clemson’s rush defense was sharp against Louisville, holding the Cardinals to  19 yards on the ground. Even so, the Tigers have not faced a rusher of Prosise’s pedigree this year and still give up more than 110 yards rushing per game this year.



For some reason, Brian Kelly seems to excel with a young quarterback. For some reason, he also does well in big road games during the regular season. Everett Golson in 2012 and Malik Zaire at the end of last year and the beginning of this one are examples of the former; Oklahoma in 2012 and Florida State last season are prime examples of the latter.

So to say the Irish are in trouble because DeShone Kizer is making his first road start is not exactly fair. While it will certainly not be easy, Kelly thrives in these situations. He also has a run game that can churn for yards and ease the pressure on his young quarterback.



Freshman kicker Justin Yoon continues to hold this unit back with his inconsistency. He didn’t attempt any field goals against UMass, but he did miss an extra point for the second straight week. That begs the question: Will he perform if the game comes down to a high-pressure kick on the road?

Besides that, however, the Irish enjoyed a banner day against the Minutemen that may signal a turnaround.

Freshman receiver C.J. Sanders had the first punt return touchdown of the Brian Kelly era, and graduate student receiver Amir Carlisle averaged a respectable 25 yards on his three kickoff returns.

Sophomore punter Tyler Newsome had five attempts and averaged 52.4 yards, the best mark in program history.

      EDGE: EVEN


Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson represents one of Notre Dame’s most accomplished opposing signal callers to date this season. He has yet to face a defense like Notre Dame’s this year, defeating two FCS opponents and a middling Louisville team, but he has never lost in Death Valley, posting 18 touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games. Watson ranks 18th in efficency and fourth in completion percentage in the country. He doesn’t have any one standout target, but seven different Tigers are averaging more than 15 yards receiving per game, and five have caught touchdowns.

The Irish secondary, on the other hand, has looked shaky through four games. Massachusetts actually gained more yards through the air than Notre Dame, and a fleaflicker completely bamboozled the defensive backs, allowing the Minutemen to gain 56 yards. In addition, the only other time Notre Dame was on the road this year, against Virginia, the Cavaliers picked apart the defense for 289 passing yards.



As unsteady as the Irish back four have looked this year, the front seven has shown just as much consistency. A week after shutting down Georgia Tech’s triple option, Notre Dame gave up a perfectly average 148 rushing yards to UMass. But 78 of those came on one rush in the first quarter that resulted in a touchdown. After that, the line was solid.

Through the rest of the year, Notre Dame has shown the run game will not break them. And Clemson is hardly the team to change that, ranking 55th in the nation in rushing yards. Sophomore running back Wayne Gallman has a strong 5.8 yards-per-rush average, but he’s not getting 20 touches each game, and his longest rush this year is only 35 yards, despite playing some truly weak defenses. Hardly big-play material.



Head coach Dabo Swinney has led Clemson to a 39-4 record at home in the past seven years. The Tigers offense is averaging more than 400 yards per game since 2011. But as impressive as those numbers are, Clemson is untested this year and labored to beat a 1-3 Louisville team on the road.

On the flipside, Brian VanGorder has shown the ability to both prepare well and make in-game adjustments. Against Georgia Tech, the Irish came out strong and let up at the end, making things a little more interesting. Against UMass, it was the inverse: a poor first half followed by shutdown play in the second. But in order to top the Tigers, Notre Dame needs to put together a complete effort, no small feat on the road.



Freshman kicker Greg Huegel has been solid thus far, going 4-for-5 on his field goal attempts and a perfect 13-for-13 on extra points.  He also handles kickoff duties and has been unspectacular but reliable in that department, getting four touchbacks on 19 kicks.

Junior punter Andy Teasdall, on the other hand, has been somewhat less than competent. His average of 38.1 yards per punt ranks him 91st in the FBS. To be fair, seven of his 16 attempts ended up inside the 20-yard line.

In the return game, Clemson has not managed any touchdowns, and the Tigers’ average on punt returns ranks 120th in the NCAA but ninth on kickoffs.  Credit for that goes to junior receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, who has only one return on the year, which went for 73 yards.

         EDGE: EVEN

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