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Tigers‘ talent poses new challenge for Irish to tackle

| Wednesday, December 5, 2018

After the first game of the season against Michigan, it would be reasonable to argue that the Irish outmatched their opponent, at least on paper, each week. And that schedule included some fantastic programs — Virginia Tech, Stanford, USC and Syracuse. No matter who Notre Dame (12-0) was set to square up against, you could find a number of areas where the Irish held a clear advantage. Whether that be at the quarterback position, considering junior Ian Book has proven to be one of the most accurate passers in the nation, the wide receiving corps, as the Irish unit outsizes just about any squad in the country or the defensive front seven, there was at least one area where the Irish were simply bigger, more skilled and better coached than their opponents.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish junior wide receiver Chase Claypool attempts to shake off a tackler during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over USC on Nov. 24.

However, this matchup in the Cotton Bowl doesn’t look as pretty for the Irish on paper.

It‘s no mistake that Clemson is the No. 2 team in the country. The Tigers (13-0, 8-0 ACC) don’t have many vulnerabilities.

“Well, you know, certainly their offensive firepower is outstanding. [Sophomore Travis] Etienne at the running back position, great depth. We all know about [freshman] Trevor Lawrence and what he can do at the quarterback position, [talented] wide receivers,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Clemson on Sunday. “Defensively, one of the defendant defensive lines in the country, and a team that wins and knows how to win.”

Kelly was brief in describing the strengths of the Tigers because there simply isn’t much that needs to be said. Clemson has a multitude of weapons, and those playmakers have made themselves known throughout the year. It’s no secret what this squad can do, and a 13-0 record along with an ACC conference title proves that.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers recorded an 81.5 offensive efficiency rating, placing them fourth in the nation. Sophomore running back Travis Etienne has proven to be one of the best running backs in the nation, rushing for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns in 13 games, placing him fifth in the nation in total rushing yards. Sophomore wide receiver Tee Higgins ranks 17th in the nation in receiving touchdowns, with 10 in 13 games. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who took over for Kelly Bryant — who left Clemson and has announced his intention to transfer to Missouri — in the middle of the season, has proven himself to be one of the most explosive quarterbacks in the nation. Plus, the Clemson offense ranks 11th in the nation in red zone offense, the highest ranking in that metric of any team in the College Football Playoff.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers are just as deadly. Clemson has recorded a defensive efficiency rating of 92.3 this season, placing them first overall in the nation in that metric. With a defensive front seven just as menacing as that of Notre Dame’s, the Tigers rank third overall in total sacks with 45 sacks in only 13 games. Plus, the Tigers rank third overall in rushing defense.

Irish graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill said the following about Clemson’s squad after Notre Dame’s Cotton Bowl bid was announced.

Yeah, they’ve got a talented quarterback, obviously, who can get the ball out, and talented skill. I think their running back went 80 yards to the house the first play of the game,” he said. “So obviously, explosive, dynamic, a lot of RPO game. We’re going to have to be disciplined. We’re going to have to be on our assignments. Great challenge, but we’re looking forward to it.”

Irish graduate student center Sam Mustipher expressed a similar excitement about the opportunity to play Clemson and emphasized the threat which Clemson’s front seven poses.

“Big, fast, physical. They’re athletic. Great D-ends. Great interior D-linemen, great linebackers,” he said. “And [associate head coach Brent] Venables has those guys with their ears pinned back at all times. Looking forward to it.”

All of this suggests that Clemson is not devoid of the pieces necessary for a national championship team, and the Tigers have put those pieces together nicely this season. Clemson has put up astronomical numbers on some opponents this season — scoring 59 points against Florida State, 56 against South Carolina, 42 against Pittsburgh, 63 against Wake Forest and 77 against Louisville. The Irish will have their hands full and it will be up to them to rise up to their greatest challenge of the season.

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