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Adams: Reasons Notre Dame wins and loses vs. Clemson

| Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Well, we made it. In the words of grad student defensive end Daelin Hayes, “it’s Clemson week, baby.” We asked Notre Dame fans for one reason they felt the Irish would defeat or lose to the Tigers, and here’s what they came up with:

Reasons for a Win

No Trevor Lawrence

Yeah, don’t think this one needs explaining. If you don’t know why (and I can’t imagine you don’t if you’re reading this), I would point you to highlights of Notre Dame vs. Clemson in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, highlights which are still too painful for me to watch.

Defense / The Defense, dude

A couple of people pointed this out, and it’s almost as much of a no brainer as no Trevor Lawrence, dude.

Defense has been and will continue to be the strength of this Notre Dame team throughout this season and pretty much every season that Clark Lea continues to grace the Irish defensive coordinator position. If Notre Dame is going to win this game, the defense is going to have to keep this one in the 20s, because it is hard for me to see this Irish offense putting up 30 or more (although that’s partly based on what I think is a winning strategy; more on that later…).

Say what you will about Notre Dame’s defense giving up 30 points to Clemson two years ago, but Alabama gave up 44 to the Tigers a game later. And seven of the 30 that the Irish surrendered were on a back-breaking run by Travis Etienne where the defense sold out to try and get the ball back.

After Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame is allowing less than a 25% conversion rate on third downs. The defense surrendered less than 10 points for the third consecutive game (the offense gave up a scoop ’n score that allowed the Yellowjackets to record 13 points on the day). It’s not the most talented defense Lea has had, but it has a couple of guys (Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Kyle Hamilton) with higher ceilings than any other Lea-era players. Those kinds of X-factor contributors can and probably will be the difference in this game.

That said, it doesn’t mean that they can do it alone. The odds are very low that safeties, pick-6s and scoops ’n scores give the Irish a win. The offense has to make plays.

Ian Book / Because Ian Book is due to finally play at the level needed to beat a top level team

This is going out on a limb. It would be incredibly welcome (and overdue) for him to be the one to put the Irish over the top, but to date Ian Book has proven to be at his best against the worst competition and at his worst against the best competition, and his best and worst can be worlds apart. I can’t see Book being the deciding factor in this game. I have to personally witness him throwing/running for the game-winning touchdown from my own little corner of Notre Dame Stadium.


Love your optimism. Last time a No. 1-ranked team came to Notre Dame Stadium on a 36-game regular season winning streak, it was 1988. That game and season turned out pretty well for the Irish. We’ll see how this one turns out.

Now on to the negativity…

Reasons for a Loss

Inability to stretch the field offensively / Ian Book has failed to show he has the game necessary to beat a top level team / The offense, dude

Book is a game manager. Officially. You can take it to the bank. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the offense will hold them back, dude.

There’s certainly potential for that with the lack of a Miles Boykin or Chase Claypool type of threat at receiver, but there are weapons at tight end (if Book can see them/not overthrow them on touchdown opportunities, but I guess that goes to your point, doesn’t it…).

You’re absolutely right that Notre Dame is going to have to bang at least one play (and probably more) over the top of the Tigers defense to keep them honest. They can do that if Book and the pass catchers are on their games. But remember, if Kyren Williams or Chris Tyree manages to record a 75-yard catch and run on a screen pass, that’ll also make the defense adjust, too.


I honestly wouldn’t put it past almost any Notre Dame team that I’ve seen in the last four years to choke away a win against a top-5 team. That said, let’s be clear about what we are defining as choking.

Last year against Georgia, Notre Dame was up 10-7 at halftime. They ended up losing 23-17 in a game that — despite the fact Notre Dame was driving in Georgia territory with a chance to win in the fourth quarter — wasn’t really as close as the score suggested. Was that a choke job? I could hear an argument for it considering Book threw two interceptions (more turnover discussion coming momentarily) against the Bulldogs, but it was a max lead of just seven points and the Irish only took the lead because of a fluky muffed punt recovery in the red zone. Their offense really didn’t belong on the same field as that UGA defense last year.

So what qualifies as choking against Clemson? Let’s say Notre Dame gets out to a two- or three- touchdown lead late in the second quarter or early third quarter (unlikely, but possible) before losing. That’s probably a choke job where the Irish get conservative and try to drain the clock (but that strategy could work for this rushing unit…) or they give up an onside kick. (Side note: why can’t they recover onside kicks? One of life’s great mysteries I suppose).

If the Irish get a one-score lead on the Tigers and eventually lose in a similar fashion to Georgia last year, that’s a grey area. But what if they score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes and Clemson manages to march downfield and win on a field goal or touchdown — and let’s say for sake of argument that the Irish were down by more than three, so they couldn’t take a knee to keep Clemson’s offense off the field and kick a field goal as time expired?

That’s what happened to the Irish against Stanford in 2015, and it arguably kept them out of the Playoff. It was probably a choke job against the Cardinal as good as they may have been. Against Clemson, even a Trevor Lawrence-less Clemson, I think we can give the defense at least a little bit of a pass — assuming they didn’t already surrender 30 or more points by then.


Notre Dame absolutely cannot afford to commit turnovers in this contest. That hasn’t been a big problem this season considering Book has only thrown one interception and it came in the season opener. However, the running backs have gotten a little fast and loose with the ball, especially with Kyren Williams coughing up two fumbles, one of which was returned over 90 yards for a touchdown against Georgia Tech. I think that actually could benefit him against Clemson because he’ll take better care of the ball with that mistake fresh in his mind.

Conversely, maybe this respondent was referring to the lack of turnovers that the Irish have been generating. They lost the turnover battle 2-1 to Georgia last year and lost the game by six. They drew even with the Bulldogs 2-2 in turnovers in 2017 and lost by one point. They lost another 2-1 margin against Clemson in 2018 and the Tigers won by 27. Sensing a pattern?

Whichever way you choose to look at it, the turnover battle is going to be a barometer for this contest.

Brian Kelly air show

Not totally sure what this is supposed to mean. I assume it’s a dig on Kelly for being in love with the passing game. If that’s the case, then this individual has either not been paying attention to Notre Dame’s offense this season or is taking the whole “Notre Dame is saving its best hand for Clemson” idea to a new extreme.

Do you think the Irish have been building a strong running resume just to make the Tigers think they’ll run it, but they’re actually going to come out slinging it Mike-Leach-air-raid-style? Do you think the passing offense has actually been elite in practice, but this is one elaborate long con trying to make Clemson think that it is a weakness? If so then no offense, but that is an asinine viewpoint.

For all Brian Kelly’s faults, he’s a smart guy and football coach. If that’s what he’s been planning, then I’m sure it won’t work out and, were I not a broke college student, I would personally write the check for Jack Swarbrick to buy Kelly out of his extension through 2024. However, I’m pretty confident that Kelly has realized his strengths are his offensive line, tight ends, running backs and defense, and I’m also confident that he intends to lean on those in this game.

Underestimate DJ [Uiagalelei]

I highly doubt that Notre Dame is going to underestimate a quarterback who, in first career start as a freshman, went 30-41 for 342 yards and two touchdowns and led his team to an 18-point comeback, the school’s biggest in a home game since 1966. Couple that with Brian Kelly commenting in his Monday press conference about how the last time they faced Clemson, the Tigers also had a freshman quarterback starting. His name is Trevor Lawrence. You might have heard of him.

Granted, Lawrence had been starting since the fifth game of the season in 2018 and Uiagalelei will be making just his second start in a trip to South Bend with all the eyes of the college football world trained on this matchup. The Irish are probably dealing with two competing thought processes: relief over the fact they don’t have to face Lawrence and concern over the lack of game film they have to break down Uiagalelei’s tendencies.

So no, I don’t anticipate them underestimating him, even if the national pundits and haters will try to make this a lose-lose for the Irish — blaming them for not being able to beat Clemson without Lawrence or for only being able to beat them because he wasn’t playing.

What I think:

No one mentioned the offensive line or running game! Are you people daft?

As I alluded to, Notre Dame’s current approach to winning — which has been to bully teams into submission and drain the clock at the end of the game — is a double-edged sword. The downside is their offense is not built to make a comeback if a team gets out to a big lead. That hasn’t been an issue to this point, but most certainly could be against Clemson.

Conversely though, imagine Notre Dame gets a lead in the range of one or two touchdowns. I mentioned last year’s game against Georgia wherein the Irish had the lead into the third quarter. They ended up turning the ball over twice through the air, largely because they were forced to throw 47 times because the running game was non-existent. This running game is far better than it was, and it’s going against a defense that isn’t as good against the run as the Bulldogs’.

Getting conservative is a real issue, but in this case, it’s also been the strength of the team. If Notre Dame is going to win this game, it will not be in a shootout, but by mucking it up and eking out a close one. And I for one can’t wait to see them make it ugly.

That’s everything. Thanks to everyone who took part in this. Can’t wait to hear the reactions next week to whatever happens on Saturday.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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