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Can Irish Tame the Tigers? Clemson vs. Notre Dame Preview

Another victory and another game closer to bowl eligibility – that is what Notre Dame was able to achieve against the Orange of Syracuse this past Saturday.  The trend of the Irish playing their best football away from Notre Dame Stadium continued with a 41-24 victory in Notre Dame’s first of three remaining matchups against ranked opponents.

The Irish fully leaned into the identity of a run first football team on Saturday piling up 246 yards on the ground compared to Syracuse’s 61.  Audric Estime and Logan Diggs were each responsible for 20 carries a piece while quarterback Drew Pyne only attempted 19 passes during the entirety of the game.  Granted, Notre Dame’s offensive line was getting a push on almost every play which certainly helped the effectiveness of the run game, but the lack of involvement and production from the wide receivers could be something that hurts the Irish in upcoming marquee matchups against the likes of Clemson and USC.  It’s not all doom and gloom though; let’s not forget that Notre Dame just beat the 16th ranked team in the country rather handily even with the officiating helping Syracuse on numerous occasions.  I’m not one to blame the refs for the outcome of a game, but doesn’t it seem a bit suspicious that Syracuse, the most penalized team in college football, didn’t have a flag thrown on them until the middle of the third quarter?  I mean, come on now.  The silver lining here is that Notre Dame didn’t put themselves into a position where the calls constantly going against them were able to sway the outcome of the game.  With the strength of the offensive line clearing paths for the Irish backs, it was made very clear the way that Notre Dame was looking to move the ball on offense. 

Defensively, the Irish got off to a quick start as Brandon Joseph recorded the first pick six of his football career on Syracuse’s opening play, giving the Irish a 7-0 lead less than one minute into the game.  A tipped pass at the line of scrimmage led to a Marist Liufau interception later and the momentum that was created by the swarming Notre Dame defense certainly helped to keep Pyne and the offense rolling.  The question mark regarding the Irish defense comes when opposing teams reach the red zone.  Notre Dame’s red zone defense is tied for dead last with Rutgers, giving up a touchdown or field goal every time an opponent has gotten inside the 20-yard line.  I am not 100% sure as to why this happens, but if Notre Dame wants to compete with Clemson this upcoming Saturday, red zone stops are going to be imperative.  What I truly appreciated about the Irish’s defensive performance against Syracuse was that for the first time all year, they looked like they were flying around and causing havoc.  They didn’t seem to be bogged down by overthinking, playing slow, and questioning their reads.  Sure, the defensive game wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to slow down a team that went neck and neck with Clemson for over three quarters just two weeks ago.

The highlight of Saturday’s matchup and a facet of the games that are becoming a corner stone for Notre Dame’s success is the emergence of a dangerous special teams unit.  Between a blocked punt, 47 yards in punt returns, and 200 yards in punts from the Irish’s Jon Sot, Special Teams Coordinator, Brian Mason, has this unit cooking.  It has been quite some time since Notre Dame has had this sort of production from a special teams unit and I am all here for it.  With what they have been able to put on film in recent weeks, they are drawing a significant amount of attention from opponents and still finding ways to produce.  Will the blocked kick/punt streak continue this week?  We will soon find out.

Looking ahead to this Saturday’s matchup, the 8-0 and fifth ranked Clemson Tigers return to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since the Covid season.  Coming off their bye week, Dabo Swinney will certainly have the Tigers ready for the task at hand.  The big question for Notre Dame fans is what Irish team are we going to get this week – the one that is on the rise and building confidence after another ranked win last week, or the team that Irish fans saw take the field three weeks ago against Stanford?  As I talked about in the last article previewing the Syracuse game, Notre Dame – for whatever reason – hasn’t played very well at home this year, but a good performance (and even a win) against Clemson would go a long way in writing the script for the rest of this season.

Talent is not an issue for Clemson; the Tigers come in with a dynamic offense and playmakers scattered across the defense.  It will surely be a challenge for the Irish on both sides of the ball.  The good news is that I don’t think this Clemson team mirrors Clemson teams of past, the Trevor Lawrence led world-beaters.  On the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers will go as quarterback DJ Uiagalelei goes.  Uiagalelei, who made his first career start against the Irish back in 2020, is coming off a shaky performance prior to the bye week, one in which Dabo Swinney pulled DJ in replacement for 5-star freshman, Cade Klubnik.  If less-than-stellar Uiagalelei play is in the cards for Clemson, this will certainly improve Notre Dame’s chances of winning this Saturday.  In the backfield, the Tigers’ Will Shipley has racked up 739 on the ground this year, averaging six yards per carry and is responsible for 10 touchdowns already.  For those who don’t follow recruiting very closely, Shipley was a 5-star running back coming out of high school whose final college choice came down to Clemson and Notre Dame.  To pair with the talent in the backfield, Clemson’s pass game is dynamic as well.  The Tigers like to lineup in spread out formations, getting players in space and taking advantage of RPO (run pass option) packages.  Two of the Tigers’ top five pass catchers are their tight ends – Jake Briningstool and Davis Allen – who have taken advantage of favorable matchups against opponents’ linebackers.  I imagine Clemson will look to do the same against Notre Dame, so the Irish linebackers coverage skills will be put to the test.  As a team, the Tigers’ third down and red zone offense is very good – a strength going against one of Notre Dame’s weaknesses.  Will the Irish defense be able to string together enough stops to allow the offense to keep up with the Tigers’ production?

On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s defense is without a doubt, the strength of this team.  This will likely be the best defensive line that Notre Dame will face all season, including Ohio State’s.  Clemson has done a very good job at stopping the run this year and forcing opponents to try and pick up yards through the air.  That sentence right there gives me chills – Notre Dame having to rely on the pass game in order to be competitive…yikes.  I still think the Irish will be able to move the ball relatively effectively on the ground, but if the Irish are going to pull off the upset, I think there will need to be one or two wide receivers that have statement games.  Clemson’s secondary is the “weakest” part of their strongest unit, so we will see if Pyne and the Irish receivers can take advantage of this.

In my opinion, the two deciding factors in Saturday’s matchup will be Notre Dame’s ability to score on offense and if the Irish special teams can break one play – whether that be a kick/punt return or a kick/punt block at an opportune time.  If these things can happen, an Irish victory would not surprise me.  With the way this season has gone though, there aren’t many things that would surprise me come Saturday night.  Clemson is a well-tested, undefeated football team deserving of their top five ranking.  Notre Dame has not played well at home this year, but this would be a great weekend to break that trend.  At the time of writing this, the Tigers are 3.5-point favorites, and your guess is as good as mine as to how this game will play out.  My hope is that the crowd and home atmosphere will have the Irish fired up and ready to play from the jump and if so, I believe Notre Dame will win 28-27 in another instant classic.  Go Irish.  Beat Tigers.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Ohio State: 8-0 overall, currently ranked #2, beat Penn State 44-31

Marshall: 4-4 overall, lost to Coastal Carolina 24-13

California: 3-5 overall, lost to Oregon 42-24

North Carolina: 7-1 overall, currently ranked #17, beat Pittsburgh 42-24

BYU: 4-5 overall, lost to East Carolina 27-24

Stanford: 3-5 overall, lost to UCLA 38-13

UNLV: 4-4 overall, coming off bye week

Syracuse: 6-2 overall, currently ranked #22, lost to Notre Dame 41-24

Clemson: 8-0 overall, currently ranked #5, coming off bye week

Navy: 3-5 overall, beat Temple (in overtime) 27-20

Boston College: 2-6 overall, lost to UCONN 13-3

USC: 7-1 overall, currently ranked #9, beat Arizona 45-37   

*Note: all rankings are from the AP Poll, not College Football Playoff rankings