Head to head: Cotton Bowl
Observer Sports Staff | Wednesday, December 5, 2018
While Clemson’s defensive line is perhaps the most talented in the country, the secondary is a potential weak link for the Tigers. While Clemson is ranked 18th in the nation in passing yards allowed, allowing opposing quarterbacks to average 183.8 passing yards per game, the stat is misleading. The Tigers have played not one, but two triple-option offenses this year in Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, giving up a combined 117 passing yards over those two games, and in conference play faced only three top-50 passing offenses in North Carolina State, Syracuse and Florida State, all of which racked up at least 190 yards. Additionally, Clemson particularly struggled against the passing attacks of Texas A&M and South Carolina, which racked up 430 and 510 yards against the Tigers, respectively.
Notre Dame’s passing offense has turned into a serious threat with the emergence of junior quarterback Ian Book and his connections with the receiving corps, especially senior Miles Boykin, who leads the team with over 800 yards and eight touchdowns. Book, who has thrown over 2,400 yards at a 70.4 percent completion rate for 19 touchdowns and six interceptions, might be the most dangerous quarterback the Tigers have faced all season.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Dexter Williams has been one of the feel-good stories for Notre Dame this season, as the senior returned from missing four games and literally hit the ground running, scoring a touchdown against Stanford on his first play from scrimmage. Through eight games, Williams has 941 yards and 12 touchdowns on 142 carries, including five total touchdowns in the last three games. The senior’s explosiveness — in six of his eight games, he has had a run of at least 30 yards — adds another dimension to Notre Dame’s offense, along with the dynamic duo of junior Tony Jones Jr. and sophomore Jafar Armstrong.
On the opposite end, however, Clemson boasts an elite rushing defense, currently ranked third in the nation with only 93 rushing yards allowed per game. The Tigers’ defensive line of tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, along with defensive end Clelin Ferrell — all potential first-round picks in the NFL Draft — combine to form an imposing front. While Pitt managed to run for 192 yards against Clemson in the ACC championship game — the most given up by the Tigers since the first week of the season — Clemson’s track record poses a big threat to Notre Dame.
Irish Offensive Coaching
Chip Long versus Brent Venables. A candidate for the Broyles Award this season against the second-highest-paid coordinator in college football. It should be a great matchup. Long has been largely successful at making critical adjustments to whatever the opposing coordinator has thrown at him this season, most recently seen in the second half against USC. However, Venables is known as an elite defensive coordinator and has elite talent to work with.
Statistically, Clemson ranks fourth in the country in total defense, giving up just 276.8 yards per game. Conversely, Notre Dame ranks 28th in total offense, averaging 456.1 yards per game. However, that hardly tells the story of which coordinator will have the advantage. Venables will likely dictate how the game goes in the first half, and Long will likely make the necessary adjustments in the second half. Venables’ defense gave up 35 points to South Carolina, so it’s somewhat vulnerable.
Irish Offensive Special Teams
Although the Irish haven’t shined in this category, it’s also hard to make a strong conclusion about them considering the relatively little experience they have. Between management of the clock and a formidable secondary that often capitalizes with turnovers, the return unit has only seen 32 looks all season, averaging 21.23 and 10.26 yards per kickoff and punt, respectively. On the other end, the Tigers have held their opponents to nearly the same numbers, with slightly lower average punt returns. Notre Dame does have the advantage in field goals, with senior Justin Yoon connecting on 17 of 21 field goal attempts this season.
Chris Finke has had several promising carries as a returner, but is yet to find the end zone. Don’t expect things to change for the senior against Clemson.
Clemson experienced a quarterback controversy early in the season not totally unlike the one Notre Dame experienced this year. Of course, as Brian Kelly pointed out in Sunday’s press conference, the storylines of the two controversies are different, as Kelly Bryant left Clemson after freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence took over, while senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush stayed with the Irish and helped them earn a crucial win over Florida State after junior quarterback Ian Book got injured against Northwestern.
But beyond the storyline, the controversy hasn’t hurt Clemson at all on the passing front, as Lawrence has proved himself to be one of the most dynamic passers in college football as a freshman. Plus, sophomore wide receiver Tee Higgins is tied for 17th in the nation in touchdowns receptions, with 10 through 13 games. The Clemson passing unit ranks 29th in the nation in passing offense, two spots above the Irish. Defensively, the Irish have one of the best front sevens in the nation and should be able to put considerable pressure on Lawrence in the pocket, while the secondary has a number of ballhawks, led by junior cornerback Julian Love, a Thorpe Award finalist. While Notre Dame has faced a number of talented quarterbacks, the combination of Lawrence and the Clemson receivers poses an entirely new beast.
While freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence will certainly demand Notre Dame’s attention, his counterpart in the backfield is just as dangerous. Clemson sophomore running back Travis Etienne has had an absolutely dominant year to spark the Tigers’ top-10 rushing offense, rushing for over 1,400 yards and 21 touchdowns during the season. The ACC Most Valuable Player scored at least a touchdown in 12 of Clemson’s 13 games, and is a potent threat — against Pitt in the ACC Championship game, he rushed for 156 yards on a mere 12 carries, earning MVP of the game in the process.
While Notre Dame’s front seven has performed admirably against the run this year — only giving up over 200 yards on the ground twice this season, one of which came against Navy’s triple-option — the Irish have yet to face a back as explosive as Etienne, as Bryce Love was hobbled in the matchup with Stanford. With all of the offensive weapons at Clemson’s disposal, Notre Dame won’t have the ability to focus exclusively on Etienne, opening up the speedy sophomore’s big-play potential.
Tigers Offensive Coaching
Both the Clemson offense and the Notre Dame defense have bright young coaching talent set to face off in Dallas, as Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliot’s talented unit faces Clark Lea and a Notre Dame defense that statistically is one of Notre Dame’s best-ever units. Elliot won the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, after the 2017 season, as Clemson became the first school to ever have the Broyles Award given to different assistants in successive seasons. But Lea is no pushover, having taken the reins of the Irish defense this season and continued the transformation initiated by Mike Elko, resulting in an elite unit that ranks among the very best in the country.
Tigers Offensive Special Teams
This area of the field hasn’t been a strength for the Irish this season, and it has relatively been one for the Tigers. Notre Dame has allowed two touchdowns on kickoff returns this season and rank 112th in the country in kick return defense, while Clemson ranks 28th in kickoff returns, averaging 23.21 yards per return. In addition, Clemson slot receiver and veteran Hunter Renfrow is a reliable and dangerous weapon, and wide receiver Amari Rodgers returned a punt for a touchdown against Boston College.
In the kicking department, Clemson senior kicker Greg Huegel is 9 of 13 in field goal attempts this season. Overall, Clemson is consistently dangerous in this part of the field, and could use it to their advantage.