The Answer to the Playoff Lies With a Common Opponent

We are a week out from the biggest game Notre Dame has played since 2012. Notre Dame has done everything to earn this position in the playoff and now it comes down to December 29. For everyone doubting Notre Dame, they are almost identical to Clemson. This game won’t be a blow out by any means.

The Last Meeting

A hurricane and a quarterbacks first start were the downfall of Notre Dame in 2015. It was a wild game until the end with the missed two point conversion. I’ll just add it in to drum that emotion back up.

Comparing the Two

Notre Dame and Clemson played three common opponents this season facing off against Syracuse, Florida State and Pitt. Clemson struggled with Syracuse while Notre Dame slipped by Pitt. Both teams ran Florida State off the field but that was just the type of year for the Seminoles.

Both of these teams had incredibly similar seasons right down to the stats and schedules. Here’s a look at the team stats to this point.

Notre Dame / Clemson

Points Per Game: 33.8 / 45.4

Points Allowed Per Game: 17.3 / 13.7

Total Yards: 456.1 / 529.8

Passing Yards Per Game: 265.5 / 270.1

Rushing Yards Per Game: 190.5 / 259.8

Yards Allowed Per Game: 331.5 / 276.7

Passing Yards Allowed: 198 / 183

Rushing Yards Allowed: 133.5 / 92.9

Strength of Record: 98.9 / 98.9

Clemson does hold an edge in most categories but it also doesn’t tell the full story. Kelly Bryant was running the Clemson offense during the first four games. Notre Dame also was without Dexter Williams and Brandon Wimbush was the starting QB for three weeks. However, this does show that through a full season with massive change and an identical strength of record, these teams are very close.

Game Score

Game score is a stat that ESPN uses and it measures the game performance including how well the team controlled the game plus the final result. It accounts for site and opponent strength. It is a scale of 0 to 100 with 100 being the best.

Notre Dame’s best game was rated a 97 (Michigan) and Clemson had their best rated win as 96 (Texas A&M). Notre Dame’s worst was 52 (Ball State) and Clemson’s was 66 (Furman). The season average for Notre Dame was 82.3 and Clemson brought in a score of 85. (Stats via ESPN)

This is a great stat to show how similar these two played. When measuring the score of how each team played all season against an identical strength of record, it is almost the same. This narrative that has been started that Notre Dame can’t compete is just flat out wrong. There are stats that prove every which way that Notre Dame is on the same level as Clemson. Unfortunately, the “eye test” has a southern flavor to it.

Three Keys to the Game

Notre Dame’s Offensive Line Handling Clemson’s Front Four

The closest that Notre Dame has come to playing against a defense like Clemson was the Michigan game. Notre Dame came out hot and put up huge plays in the first quarter. After that the offense got a bit sluggish and stalled out. Dexter Williams and Ian Book didn’t play, which would of helped, but I doubt by much. Notre Dame had 132 yards rushing on 47 carries for an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Williams was out but Wimbush gives the rushing attack a shot of life. Wimbush also threw the ball all over the place the first half so Michigan couldn’t stack the box. The offensive line had their hands full and couldn’t open up running lanes. That was also months ago and this group has grown. They need to keep an incredibly dangerous defensive line at bay and open up running lanes. Dexter Williams had 13 carries for 31 yards against Pitt in a 19-14 win. Clemson will score more then 14 points and bring in a better defense then Pitt has. If Notre Dame wants to be playing in their second National Championship this decade, it starts up front.

Notre Dame Run Defense Versus Etienne Travis

Etienne Travis has been a beast all season. Almost 1,500 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns is probably fair to chalk up to a solid year. He has also been averaging eight yards a carry and been the leader in a crowded, talented Clemson backfield. I love Dexter Williams, but this guy is a better version and is what makes the Clemson offense go. With eye popping stats and four 40+ yard touchdown runs, the defense will have their hands full. The run defense of Notre Dame hasn’t been bad but not really their strong point this season. Shutting down Travis would put all the pressure on a freshman QB in the biggest game of his life. Notre Dame has one of the best pass defenses in the country and will be more then able to handle their own. If the Jerry Tillery and company can bottle up Etienne Travis, Notre Dame will have a fun night.

How Will Book Handle the Pressure

As I mentioned in the previous key, this will be Trevor Lawrence’s biggest game of his life as a true freshman. Book also has a tall task as the Sophomore signal caller hasn’t seen a game this big either. Book has disappeared at times during tough games. At moments during Pitt and USC he seemed lost. Now Book has a major leg up on Lawrence when the fourth quarter rolls around. Book has an 83% completion percentage and seven touchdowns to two interceptions in the fourth quarter this season. Lawrence has a 54% completion percentage and three touchdowns to two interceptions. Book has been the better fourth quarter QB hands down. But he can’t disappear early like he has been prone to do in big games. Starting slow against Clemson could throw Notre Dame into a hole they can’t dig out of.

Biggest Issue for Notre Dame

The biggest thing I worry about is the spotlight being too much for this Fighting Irish team. Nobody on the roster has played in a moment this big. Clemson on the other hand has 21 of 22 starters that have played in a playoff game. They have been the last three years and even won a championship in 2016.

The one starter for Clemson without the experience is the QB, Trevor Lawrence. He is on a run first team with a great defense and loads of experience in a game like this. Notre Dame can’t crack under the pressure.

We witnessed it last season when Notre Dame went to Miami and had their doors blown off. Even Brian Kelly said they got wrapped up in all the hype and just didn’t come ready to play. Notre Dame doesn’t have the benefit of veteran leadership to look to when preparing for this game. Even their head coach has been on the receiving end of some big games he has played in. Brian Kelly needs to right the wrongs of his past and Notre Dame will need to learn to grow up fast.

Players to Watch

Liam Eichenberg

The left tackle will have his hands full all game with the pass rush of Clemson. Ian Book and company need to move the ball to stay competitive against an incredibly talented defense. The Clemson defense is second in sacks and tackles for loss. Since Aaron Banks moved to left guard, the pair have been dynamic. The Notre Dame offensive has only given up 1.6 sacks per game and have been averaging 5 yards per carry in November. They will need to look for a similar output December 29.

Julian Love

The Jim Thorpe finalist has been spectacular all season. He was snubbed of the award and had better stats then the winner but that is past now. (https://irishfb.com/2018/12/06/notre-dame-players-robbed-of-awards/)

Love and Troy Pride have earned the praise and rankings of one of the best passing defenses in the country. Love shutting down receivers all year shouldn’t change but he will have a tall order. Lawrence has proven this season to earn his five star rating out of high school but is still young. He typically needs a quarter to settle in, similar to Book. Love taking away his options in either Amari Rodgers or Tee Higgins will make Lawrence life difficult.

Notre Dame Defensive Line

I didn’t want to chose just one player because of how great the whole front has been. Jerry Tillery has been the front runner and the one everyone mentions first, but the rest deserve respect. Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hays have been a force this year and driving factor behind Notre Dame’s defensive dominance.

The Clemson offensive line has only given up 14 sacks this season and have been one of the better rushing attacks in the country. Etienne Travis was already highlighted at his impressive year he had and the fits he could give Notre Dame.

The defensive front will need to cause havoc and find the mojo they had most of the season. The pass rush started to teeter off towards the end of the season and it is to be expected. With fatigue and the grind that goes with a long season, it is unlikely to maintain that performance. With five weeks off, this defensive line should be ready to go.

Final Prediction

There have been predictions that seem to follow the narrative of a major Clemson win, it won’t happen.

These two are evenly matched teams and the only Notre Dame collapse would come from the coaching staff not having them ready. Brian Kelly had a track record of failing to have his team ready in big spots, he corrected that this season. Stanford, Virginia Tech and Michigan are all games that show the growth of this team and Brian Kelly as a team.

The game lies with the Notre Dame offense and Ian Book. Clemson will be able to score but the defense can hold them in check. Syracuse and Boston College gave the Clemson offense issues. But the common opponent is Pitt.

Clemson ran them out of the stadium while Notre Dame needed a last second win. But Pitt held Lawrence to 50% completion percentage and 150 yards. The downfall of Pitt was three turnovers and Etienne Travis.

Notre Dame has proven they can bottle up a talented running back and rattling Lawrence will shut down this entire offense. Ian Book is going to struggle early until he settles in and Dexter Williams will have to wear the defense down before finding some running lanes in the third quarter. Keeping it close will be exactly what Notre Dame needs for a victory. Book has been reliable in the fourth and Dexter Williams can rip off a huge run at any minute. With Jafar Armstrong finally back and healthy he also gives this offense another weapon. It will be a one score game and come down to the final minutes likely ending on a final possession.

Notre Dame 24 Clemson 21

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