With last Saturday's win over Boston College, we found out that even without Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson Tigers are still capable of getting top-shelf quarterback play. We also found out that there are still elements of the Clemson team that need improvement.
The Tigers have their biggest regular-season game of 2020 this weekend at the No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and they'll have to do it without Lawrence, who remains out with COVID-19. Here are five aspects to the game that if they beak the Tigers' way, will ensure a Clemson victory.
1. Run blocking
Clemson's quarterbacks have only been sacked 11 times in seven games, a ratio that tops the ACC. But the offensive line play has not been perfect. Running back Travis Etienne — who averaged 7.2, 8.1, and 7.6 yards per carry in his first three seasons — is down to 5.9 yards per rush so far in 2020. And he is not alone. Reserve Lyn-J Dixon has seen his numbers plummet. As a team, despite possessing perhaps the best running back in the FBS, the Tigers are 11th in the conference in rushing offense and are down nearly 80 yards per game and almost two yards per carry from last year. Notre Dame has a run defense that ranks among the nation's elite, so the offensive line will have to be on its game to help out Etienne and relieve some pressure off true freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei.
2. Stretching the field
The Tigers still possess a big-play offense. But many of their big chunk plays have been on short passes that Amari Rodgers has broken or the result of getting Etienne in space, as his impact in the passing game has been a major factor in this year's Clemson offense. But with Tee Higgins off to the NFL and Justyn Russ out with his spinal injury, the Tigers have not had a consistent deep threat on the outside. Frank Ladson Jr. had had his moments, but he has also dropped some passes and missed the Boston College game with an undisclosed injury. Uiagalelei has a huge arm, and attacking Notre Dame's defense vertically would open up the entire field.
3. Controlling the Notre Dame running game
It’s clear where Notre Dame's strength lies on offense: running the ball behind their very strong offensive line. The Irish have run for over 200 yards in four of their six games and are second in the league in rushing offense. They are also 12th in the ACC in passing offense. Interestingly, the team that slowed down the Notre Dame running game the most — Pittsburgh — allowed 45 points on the day. The reason for Notre Dame's offensive explosion that day was due to the Panthers surrendering several big plays in the passing game. But Notre Dame doesn't have the athletes on the perimeter that should be able to strike the Tigers downfield. If Clemson controls the Irish run game and keeps all the passing plays in front of them, Notre Dame will have trouble moving the ball.
4. Beware of the tight ends
Notre Dame has a long tradition of producing quality tight ends, and a year after losing Cole Kmet to the NFL, the Irish have two more very good options at the position. Tommy Tremble is as good a blocking tight end as you will see, and though he only has 12 receptions on the year, he can be threat catching the ball. Last year in limited time backing up Kmet, Tremble had four touchdown receptions. He had two good pass-catching games to start the year and then has tailed off. It would not be surprising to see Tremble featured more this week. The other tight end is freshman Michael Mayer, a player who has seen his star rise in recent weeks. He leads the team with 15 catches, eight of which have come in the past two games. With James Skalski out and Mike Jones Jr. coming back from an injury, the challenge of stopping the tight ends becomes even greater.
5. Handling the situation
It's something Clemson has always done well, but things are not quite the same this week. The game will be played in an environment that Clemson has never been to and they are doing it with a true freshman quarterback. Uiagalelei is a special talent that seems extremely composed, but this is not just his first road start. It’s a game in South Bend versus the No. 4 team in America. While there will only be around 10,000 people in the stands, Notre Dame Stadium is a unique, historical setting. The weather looks fine and Clemson always seems to bounce back quickly from games in which they were unexpectedly tested. But this is a different team and Notre Dame is a different place.
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— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.