Head-to-Head 2020: ACC Championship
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, December 18, 2020
In a rare turn of events, we have a repeat opponent — and thus evidence to evaluate — in our head-to-head breakdown of Notre Dame vs. Clemson, part two. Let’s get to it.
Notre Dame Passing
Back on Nov. 7, graduate student quarterback Ian Book had as much time to throw as anyone could ask for against Clemson’s relatively shorthanded defensive front, thanks to an outstanding pass blocking effort from sophomore running back Kyren Williams and a then-healthy offensive line. Three Tigers defensive starters returning from injury and junior center Jarrett Patterson going down don’t bode well for the Irish, but then again, it should be tough for Clemson to bank on the Irish having to settle for two field goals on red zone opportunities, especially the way graduate student receivers Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley have come on as of late. It’s tough to replicate strong showings against top competition, making this a push.
Notre Dame Rushing
Sophomore running back Kyren Williams had his second-best rush performance of the season on Nov. 7, pushing for 140 yards on the ground against a Clemson defense that was giving up an average of just 2.7 yards per carry at the time. Going into the championship, the Tigers are now third in ACC play in rush defense, allowing opponents an average of 105.5 yards per game. With a Notre Dame team that’s averaging 235.0 yards per contest, there will likely be a fair amount of push and pull on the ground. Ian Book also had a season high of 14 carries against Clemson to add 67 yards of his own offense on the run. That being said, defensive tackle Tyler Davis, a sophomore standout, will be in the game for the Tigers after missing the first meeting with the Irish. The Notre Dame offensive line, missing starting center Jarrett Patterson, will have to be stout in the middle to prevent Davis from getting to Book or any of his backs and hampering the run game. This matchup will be one of inches.
Notre Dame Offensive Coaching
It’s hard to fully evaluate Tommy Rees’ performance as offensive coordinator as long as he’s tied to Ian Book. Until then, we’ll give him a solidly passing score. Notre Dame is 18th nationally in total offense with an average of 474.3 yards per game. The rushing attack is much improved, in part to Rees helping develop and change the blocking scheme of the offensive line, plus sophomore running back Kyren Williams coming into his own. Rees will be tasked with finding a way to outfox Brent Venables once more, a task few are able to accomplish. As talented as Rees has appeared to be, given the chess pieces Venables has returning to his defense for this matchup with the Irish, the Tigers gets the edge here.
Notre Dame Offensive Special Teams
Senior kicker Jonathan Doerer had a bit of a rough showing recently, but he did an outstanding job last time out against the Tigers, all things considered. He didn’t miss an extra point and was 4-5 on field goals, with the only miss coming on a 57-yarder. The Irish never got a chance to return kicks as the Tigers opted for touchbacks in that last matchup, and that trend will likely continue with Clemson mindful of freshman running back/kick returner Chris Tyree’s 94-yard touchdown run against Syracuse. That threat will earn Notre Dame at least decent field position on kickoffs, and while the punt return game is nonexistent, junior wide receiver Matt Salerno showed he could take a hit fielding the ball.
EDGE: Notre Dame
This one goes to Clemson, and it shouldn’t be a question. Notre Dame’s pass defense has not been the rock of their overall strong defensive unit, and their questions at cornerback persist into this matchup. Shoddy tackling by Nick McCloud cost Notre Dame a touchdown against Syracuse while freshman Clarence Lewis has taken over starting duties at the other corner spot from junior TaRiq Bracy. Trevor Lawrence is back, and Clemson’s receivers already torched the Irish’s secondary last time out. If Notre Dame doesn’t control Clemson’s aerial attack, they are in major trouble.
Let’s quash this quickly: It is highly unlikely that Travis Etienne rushes for 28 yards or fewer against the Irish this go around. Etienne was priority No. 1, 2 and 3 on Nov. 7, but now the Irish have to balance the attention they devote to him and that which they devote to Trevor Lawrence. Speaking of Lawrence, he doesn’t boast the same “freight train” type of rushing ability that D.J. Uiagalelei does, but he showed off his dual-threat capabilities and then some against Ohio State in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. This will be a trickier matchup for the likes of Notre Dame’s coaches and personnel, but the Irish have shown their capabilities shutting down the run all year. They will likely make that their objective once more, even if they give up a few more big pass plays.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Clemson Offensive Coaching
Defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s strategy against Clemson was masterful the first time around. You’d think it would be impossible to replicate that with star quarterback Trevor Lawrence returning for the Irish, but there’s a key point Brian Kelly raised in his Sunday press conference: The Irish had almost nothing to go on to prepare for Lawrence’s backup, D.J. Uiagalelei. They’ve got two-and-a-half season’s worth of tape to prep for Lawrence, and we all know how good Clark Lea is at game-planning. Clemson OC Tony Elliott will have more to go on as well, and elite offense typically gets the edge over elite defense, but this is by no means an overwhelming advantage.
Clemson Offensive Special Teams
B.T. Potter has been solid if not spectacular at the kicking position for Clemson all season, going 53-54 on PATs and 16-21 on field goals. He was spectacular against Notre Dame, going 4-4 on field goals and keeping the Tigers in the game. If you take out his 0-3 performance against Miami, Potter is 16-18 on the season. Clemson doesn’t frequently return kicks, but they have two players in Lyn-J Dixon and Travis Etienne averaging over 20 yards per return, and Etienne also flashed his ability in the punt return game with one 44-yard return this season. Amari Rodgers is pretty pedestrian when he returns punts, but the electric ability and athleticism is there to make the Irish worry.