After a convincing win against Syracuse last week, the Irish have a lot of momentum heading into their biggest home matchup of the season against the fifth-ranked Clemson Tigers. Marcus Freeman and the Irish will look to prove that they can play well at home and break some of their early season woes at Notre Dame Stadium. Clemson, who is coming off of a bye week, last played against Syracuse as well, beating the Orange by a narrow 27-21 margin. The Irish will have their work cut out for them against the undefeated Tigers. Here are the Irish keys to victory.
Take care of the football
In Notre Dame’s stunning losses to Marshall and Stanford this season, it was ultimately turnovers that prevented the Irish from winning. Against Marshall, it was sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner’s pick-six with just under five minutes to go. Against Stanford, sophomore running back Audric Estime’s fumble late in the fourth quarter sealed the Irish loss.
Facing a Clemson team that has more talent and experience on both sides of the ball, the Irish simply can not afford to give up any possessions or give the Tigers good field position on Saturday. The good news for the Irish is that the Clemson defense hasn’t exactly been racking up turnovers, as they only generated 12 turnovers this season. Despite this, the Irish will need to be disciplined at key moments of the game and not make costly mistakes like they have in a couple of games earlier this season.
One player to watch for the Irish is Audric Estime. Although Estime has put up impressive numbers this season with over 500 rushing yards with an average of 5.6 yards per carry, he has lost three fumbles. The Irish relied heavily on Estime against Syracuse, and Estime took care of the ball and was very productive in the run game. The Irish will need the same from him on Saturday if they are going to compete with the Tigers.
Stop Clemson’s run game
Another key to Irish victory on Saturday will be stopping the Clemson run game, which has averaged nearly 200 yards per game this season. The Tigers are led by sophomore running back Will Shipley, who has been sensational for the Tigers this year and is averaging six yards per carry. Shipley is also coming off his most impressive performance of the year. He rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse two weeks ago.
If Shipley and the Clemson offensive line are able to have their way with Notre Dame’s front seven, this game could be a blowout. The Irish run defense is ranked 51st in college football, and they have been very streaky this season. At times they have come up big in short-yardage situations, but they have also allowed nearly four yards per carry this season. They have been susceptible to allowing big yardage plays on the ground. Shipley is arguably the best running back the Irish have faced this season. Containing his production will be a challenge to say the least.
Even if they can contain Shipley, they have to worry about Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who can punish defenses with his mobility. Uiagalelei has 350 rushing yards this season, and his ability to be effective outside of the pocket could be an issue for the Irish. If the Irish are able to stop the run, however, they can potentially expose Uiagalelei’s bigger weakness in the passing game. Uiagalelei ranks just 45th in the FBS in passer rating.
Find success in the passing game
Although the Irish relied heavily on the run game in last week’s victory over Syracuse, that is going to be much tougher to do against a Clemson run defense that is ranked 7th in FBS and allows an average of just 2.98 yards per carry. It seems unlikely that the Irish will be able to lean on their run game to lead them to victory.
For that reason, it is likely going to come down to junior quarterback Drew Pyne being able to make some plays, potentially in third and long situations. Since the BYU game, Pyne has completed just 48.6% of his passes, which isn’t going to cut it against Clemson. In the win against Syracuse, Pyne attempted just 19 passes, but it is quite possible he needs to throw the ball twice as much this Saturday and do so successfully. If the Irish are going to get Pyne comfortable in the pass game, they need the offensive line to step up against a Clemson team that averages nearly three sacks per game. Since the Stanford game, the offensive line has looked formidable, but they will face a difficult task against a talented Clemson front seven.
Aside from the offensive line, Pyne needs to have options available downfield other than junior tight end Michael Mayer. Assuming the Tigers do everything in their power to take Mayer out of the game, the Irish need at least a couple of receivers to step up. Sophomore Deion Colzie might be an option for the Irish, as he had a couple of catches in his return from injury against Syracuse. Freshman Tobias Merriweather and sophomore Jayden Thomas have also shown flashes of greatness this season, and they could be options for deep downfield plays as well.
At the end of the day, though, it comes down to Pyne’s ability to find these open receivers. Too many times this season Pyne gets locked in on Mayer, and that has proved costly at times. Pyne has the opportunity of a lifetime on Saturday, and he has to be prepared to take advantage of his opportunity if the Irish are going to find a victory.