Week 10 football grades: Irish defense gave the team a chance against Clemson
Andrew McGuinness | Thursday, November 9, 2023
The Notre Dame defense didn’t have a perfect game on Saturday. The run defense in particular had some difficult moments early in the game. However, that was not the problem for the Irish against Clemson. The Tigers notched 10 points off turnovers, seven of which came on a pick six and the other three on a drive that started at the Irish 22. Especially in the second half, the Irish did their job when Clemson had the football. Special teams, on the other hand, was an adventure, to say the least.
When news broke before the game began that Clemson’s top running back Will Shipley (a former Notre Dame recruiting target) would miss the game due to injury, it was fair to wonder how the Tigers would generate offense. Backup Phil Mafah had performed well in a support role, but could he hold up in what wound up being a 36-carry day?
Technically, you could say the answer to that question was no. The Irish did limit Mafah’s production in the second half, with junior Gabriel Rubio stripping him on Clemson’s last meaningful drive and senior Rylie Mills recovering the ball. However, the day was still a major net positive for Mafah. The junior registered a career-high 186 yards on the ground, breaking the century mark for just the second time in three seasons. He also rumbled for two scores, including a 41-yard touchdown on the first play of Clemson’s second drive. The Irish struggled to bring down the six-foot-one, 230-pound back consistently, as Mafah broke several missed tackles on the afternoon.
Notre Dame’s pass rush also struggled to generate pressure against an overmatched Cade Klubnik. Both he and Notre Dame graduate student Sam Hartman threw the ball poorly. The difference in the game was that Hartman made the big mistake and Klubnik did not. Graduate student Javontae Jean-Baptiste did notch an important sack, but the Irish failed to generate so much as a single hurry in the contest.
Weekly Grade: C; Season Grade: B
Graduate student Jack Kiser’s playing time has been a bit inconsistent this season. However, he played a huge role for Notre Dame on Saturday. Kiser led the Irish with nine tackles, a whopping seven of which were solo. One was a massive shoestring takedown to prevent a punt return touchdown. (It was immediately followed by Mafah’s 41-yard score, but it felt big at the time.)
Graduate students JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau also made some plays, with Bertrand notching 0.5 tackles for loss and a pair of pass breakups. They were part of the tackling woes that plagued the Irish, though, also proving unable to slow down Mafah until it was too late.
Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: B+
Anytime you allow just 109 yards through the air, it’s hard to be too upset at how your secondary played. Sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison once again led the way, registering 3 pass breakups, including one on third down. However, he too was run over by Mafah on a third-and-four that allowed Clemson to progress on a drive that ended in points. Senior cornerback Clarence Lewis was unable to wrap up Tyler Brown short of the goal line on Klubnik’s lone passing touchdown.
While the overall pass defense numbers are certainly bullish, the Irish could have played even better. They did make a potentially game-changing play when senior safety Xavier Watts notched yet another interception, setting the Irish up in the red zone for what would turn out to be their lone second-half score. But there were a couple of other dangerous Klubnik passes that went incomplete, coupled with a few busts in coverage in the first half when Clemson was able to move the ball effectively. Other than the Watts pick and a few other plays, Clemson more struggled than the Irish thrived.
Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade: A-
Just when it looked like the Irish could trust Marty Biagi’s unit, it dropped the ball at Memorial Stadium — literally and figuratively. The Tigers received free points when senior wide receiver Chris Tyree muffed a routine punt in the first quarter. Though the Irish held Clemson to a field goal, it still left a sour note the Irish never fully turned sweet. Notre Dame’s punt coverage was spotty on a couple of occasions, which especially stood out as Clemson punter Aidan Swanson pinned the Irish deep in their own territory time and time again in the fourth quarter.
The one bright spot was graduate student Spencer Shrader. Shrader accounted for all nine of Notre Dame’s first-half points and made both of his extra points in the second. It was a good day for him, but not too many of his teammates.
Weekly Grade: C-; Season Grade: B+
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.