It’s here. The matchup that all Notre Dame fans have been waiting for is just three days away. Undefeated, fourth ranked Notre Dame against the juggernaut, #1 nationally ranked Clemson Tigers. Although the gap in rankings between the two teams is razor thin, we all know that nobody outside of South Bend is giving Notre Dame a chance. That 30–3 2018 College Football Playoff beatdown is too fresh in the public’s mind, as evident by Clemson being a 5.5 point favorite even without Heisman frontrunner Trevor Lawrence (five star freshman QB DJ Uiagalelei will take his place). What do Brian Kelly and Ian Book have to accomplish in order to take down Clemson? I dive into a few keys to their gameplan below.
Notre Dame Has to Pressure DJ Uiagalelei Early and Often
We all know this Notre Dame defense is among the best in the country. Among FBS teams, the Irish rank fourth in points per game at 10.3, eighth in rushing yards per game at 93.7, ninth in passing yards per game at 173.5, and fourth in third down conversion percentage at 24.4%. Consider those numbers altogether and you arrive at one conclusion: balanced. Notre Dame doesn’t just possess an elite run defense or an elite pass defense; it excels at both while shutting the door on third down. This is a formula the Irish must replicate on Saturday if they want to contain DJ Uiagalelei and that Clemson offense, which boasts weapons all over the field even in Trevor Lawrence’s absence.
The one aspect of this Notre Dame defense that has relatively underperformed thus far is pressuring the quarterback. With Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem leaving for the NFL draft, it’s no surprise that this position group is no longer leading the charge for this defense. Okwara and Kareem were ND’s premier edge rushers in 2019 and were a top pass rushing tandem in all of college football.
ND currently has 17 total sacks, good for T-16th among FBS teams. While this is not underwhelming for most defenses in college football, it is for Notre Dame. That’s the type of expectations Clark Lea has built for this Irish defense. Getting to the quarterback is something that needs to improve if ND wants to be nationally recognized as college football’s top defense.
The Irish Defensive Line Has a Tall Task Ahead of Them
Don’t get me wrong, Daelin Hayes, Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji have executed their assignments well. But having a total of seven sacks from your starting defensive line isn’t exactly dominant. Leading the charge with 3.5 sacks is sophomore edge rusher Isaiah Foskey. Expect him to receive significant playing time and maybe even start this weekend. Winning one on one matchups at the line of scrimmage when DJ Uiagalelei drops back to pass is essential if this defense wants to hold Clemson to fewer than 20 points.
More importantly, if Notre Dame is able to pressure DJ Uiagalelei with its four down linemen, that allows Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Kyle Hamilton to utilize their instincts and athleticism to swarm to Etienne against the run and make plays on the ball when Uiagalelei drops back to pass. Forcing DJ Uiagalelei, a freshman QB with only one start under his belt, to make quick decisions is how this explosive secondary can make plays on the ball and create turnovers. Having a positive turnover margin is essential if Notre Dame wants to win this football game, as they are in a talent deficit in this matchup.
Ian Book Must Stretch the Clemson Defense Vertically
Now, let’s get into the other side of the football: Ian Book and the offense. Among all FBS teams, Notre Dame is 71st in passing yards per game at 206.2 and 40th in passing yards per attempt at 8.0. Not only is ND struggling to rack up yards through the air, this offense is simply not testing defenses downfield. Is this more so due to Ian Book’s lack of confidence with his deep ball accuracy, or is it because Tommy Rees and Brian Kelly refuse to call plays that test defenses vertically? Honestly, I’m not sure, but if Notre Dame wants to beat Clemson, they must successfully complete passes downfield. As we saw in the 2018 College Football Playoff, you cannot be a one-dimensional offense and expect to beat the elites of college football.
We started to see Ian Book air the football out more against Pittsburgh, as he averaged 19.5 yards per completion. This was a step in the right direction and allowed the Irish to put up 319 yards through the air. While I wrote two weeks ago that the wide receiving core is the weakness of this Notre Dame offense, Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley have started to emerge as go-to receivers the past two weeks. Tight end Michael Mayer has also burst onto the college football scene and has accumulated 8 catches for 88 yards and one touchdown in his last two games. Even as a freshman, he is arguably this offense’s most prolific weapon through the air.
Notre Dame’s Receivers Must Leverage Their Physical, Athletic Frames
Testing the Tiger defense vertically is a requirement if Notre Dame wants to score enough points to win. In 2018, Clemson knew Brian Kelly did not trust Ian Book to complete passes downfield. They manned up on receivers, loaded the box to stop the run, and dared Book to beat them with passes 15+ yards downfield. ND couldn’t do it, and the result was three total points.
While Notre Dame lacks some explosiveness on the perimeter with Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin’s injuries, they do have an assembly line of big body, physical pass catchers. Ben Skowronek, Javon McKinley, Michael Mayer, and Tommy Tremble likely won’t win one on one matchups with their speed, but can do so with their physicality and athleticism. We saw Skowronek and Mayer win a handful of 50/50 balls in the air against Pitt.
For Notre Dame to take down Clemson, Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees must trust Ian Book to take shots down field. Likewise, Ian Book must have the confidence that his pass catchers will come down with the football in traffic. These guys have the athleticism to make game-changing catches, as shown by the above video. Testing that Clemson defense vertically is the only way Notre Dame can force Clemson to respect Ian Book’s throwing ability, which will also open up the run game.
Brian Kelly Must Stick to Notre Dame’s Identity
While I want Ian Book and Brian Kelly to take shots downfield, I’m not advocating that Notre Dame air it out 45 times a game and abandon what has won them 29 of their last 32 football games. Ian Book is not that type of quarterback and ND cannot be successful that way. I’m simply imploring Tommy Rees to complete enough passes downfield so Clemson has no choice but to respect Book’s deep ball ability.
Once that happens, instead of seven guys in the box, there’s now six. All of a sudden you can rely on Kyren Williams and this elite run-blocking offensive line to dominate at the point of attack. In turn, that would also allow Ian Book to do what he does best: make good decisions with the football, limit turnovers, make plays with his feet, and dictate the tempo of the game. Notre Dame is eighth in the country in time of possession, a trend that needs to continue on Saturday. It is imperative that Brian Kelly realizes this and sticks to Notre Dame’s identity by winning the line of scrimmage and playing mistake-free football. It’s the only way the Irish come out of this game with a win.
Don’t Kid Yourself, Notre Dame Can Win on Saturday
Although Clemson is the favorite, and rightfully so, the idea that Notre Dame has no chance in this matchup is wrong. Do the people with this school of thought realize that only five years ago the Irish went into Death Valley and lost by just two points to a Clemson team that finished 14-1 and was six points away from a national title? Not only that, Notre Dame has had gut wrenching defeats to other college football elites the last six seasons (FSU 2014, Georgia 2017, Georgia 2019). Sure, they’ve had some blowout losses as well. But why don’t people bring up those four razor thin defeats? Because it doesn’t fit the “Notre Dame is always blown out on the big stage” narrative college football media shoves down the public’s throat.
A quick look at the facts debunks that notion entirely. If Notre Dame executes their gameplan and plays to their potential, they will be in the position to win this football game in the final minutes. Just like they have been many times the last half-decade against the college football elites.