Notre Dame hosts Clemson in a massive showdown on Saturday night in college football’s Week 10 slate. The stakes in this matchup are clear. The Tigers are the No. 1 team in most polls and at the top of the list with Alabama and Ohio State to win the national championship. The Fighting Irish would like nothing more than to spoil Clemson’s perfect record, but coach Brian Kelly’s team is also fighting for a playoff spot and a trip to the ACC Championship Game. Depending on how the season breaks, Notre Dame could have another opportunity at Clemson in the ACC title game. However, a matchup in South Bend is much more favorable. And of course, the Fighting Irish are catching the Tigers with quarterback Trevor Lawrence sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols.
Notre Dame’s playoff hopes and place in the ACC pecking order aren’t the only things in the mix. This program has struggled in matchups against top-five teams in recent years, including a 30-3 loss to Clemson in the CFB Playoff in 2018 and a blowout defeat to Alabama in the BCS Championship in 2012. Kelly’s team hopes to change that narrative on Saturday. The Fighting Irish are off to a 6-0 start this fall and have won five of those games by 14 or more points. After the matchup against Clemson, Notre Dame has three of its final four games on the road, including North Carolina and Boston College.
Clemson opened the season as the favorite to win the national championship and not much has changed through the first two months of 2020. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team has reeled off seven wins to start 2020, including a road victory against Wake Forest (37-13) in the opener, and a dominant 42-17 win over Miami in early October. A road trip to Virginia Tech awaits on Dec. 5, but Saturday’s matchup against Notre Dame is the toughest hurdle for Swinney’s team to clear before another undefeated regular season and a trip to the ACC title game.
Notre Dame and Clemson have played just four times. The Tigers are 3-1 in those games. However, three of the four matchups were decided by six points or less.
Clemson at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -5.5
When Clemson Has the Ball
With Trevor Lawrence sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols, true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei is slated to make his second start for Clemson. Uiagalelei ranked as a five-star prospect in the 2020 signing class, so it was no surprise the moment wasn’t too big for him in his first start last week against Boston College. Uiagalelei completed 30 of 41 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns and added 25 yards and a score on the ground. Once again, the spotlight will be on the true freshman as he makes another start on Saturday.
Based on his performance last week, how Uiagalelei plays is low on the list of concerns for Swinney and play-caller Tony Elliott. But Clemson’s offense does have a couple of areas that need improvement in order to win. The offensive line has surrendered just 11 sacks but run blocking has been inconsistent at times. Running back Travis Etienne (606 yards and nine scores) is capable of taking any carry from anywhere on the field for a touchdown. Notre Dame’s defense will aim to keep him contained between the tackles and not allow the two-yard gains to become explosive runs. The Fighting Irish have been stingy all year versus the run, limiting teams to 93.7 yards a game and just 3.1 yards per carry. No team has managed more than 150 yards on the ground against this defense. Can Etienne get on track to help alleviate some of the pressure on Uiagalelei’s right arm?
Notre Dame’s secondary is another strength, holding teams to a completion percentage of 52.2 and leading all ACC teams in pass efficiency defense. No offense has passed for 260 yards against the Fighting Irish this fall. Safety Kyle Hamilton is a difference-maker on the back end, with Nick McCloud, TaRiq Bracy, and Clarence Lewis forming a solid collection of cornerbacks. Uiagalelei’s No. 1 target is Amari Rodgers (40 catches), but Clemson’s offense needs other pass catchers to step up. Cornell Powell is a name to watch after a strong performance last week, with Frank Ladson and tight end Braden Galloway also expected to be heavily involved. Also, look for Elliott to find ways to get the ball to Etienne in space via the passing game.
A lower-scoring game likely benefits Notre Dame, so it’s crucial for Kelly’s group to control the flow of the matchup and not allow big plays to Etienne and Uiagalelei. The defense is limiting teams to 4.5 yards per snap and just 10.3 points a game, so Clemson’s offense against this unit is a strength-versus-strength matchup.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Solid and steady might be the easiest way to sum up Notre Dame’s offense. The Fighting Irish rank fifth in the ACC in scoring (34.8) and yards per play (6.1). Although the offense isn’t generating a ton of big plays every week, coordinator Tommy Rees is pushing all of the right buttons in 2020.
The unquestioned strength rests in the trenches with an experienced and standout offensive line. The front five – led by tackle Liam Eichenberg – is the best in the ACC and ranks near the top of college football. With that offensive line in place, it’s easy to see why Notre Dame leans on the run (57 percent of its plays). This group has been clearing the way for rushers to average 5.1 yards per carry and has played a role in dominating the time of possession (34:38 per contest). Kyren Williams (600 yards) and Chris Tyree (264) lead the way at running back, with this duo poised to challenge a stingy Clemson front. Coordinator Brent Venables will be a bit shorthanded in the trenches this week, as Xavier Thomas is out for the first half due to targeting, and Justin Foster (end) and Tyler Davis (tackle) won’t play due to injury. The Tigers rank third in the ACC (99.9 ypg) versus the run but the absence of those linemen, along with linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones will create some challenges against the physical Notre Dame line.
Senior quarterback Ian Book isn’t likely to exceed last year’s 34 passing touchdowns, but his overall level of play isn’t a concern for Kelly and Rees. He’s connecting on 61.3 percent of his throws, averaging 8.2 yards per attempt, and continues to make a couple of plays a game with his legs (212 rushing yards and five scores). Book ranks 12th among quarterbacks in the ACC with just three completions of 40 yards or more but some of the lack of big plays falls on a receiving corps still looking to replace Chase Claypool. Tight end Michael Mayer (15 grabs) leads the team in catches, with Javon McKinley (14) and Avery Davis (12) headlining the production at receiver. The concerns at receiver are magnified against a Clemson secondary ranked second in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, so whether it’s McKinley, Davis or Mayer or Tommy Tremble at tight end, Notre Dame needs playmakers to step up on Saturday night. Book excels at the midrange game, but a couple of big plays will be needed.
Notre Dame has a huge opportunity on Saturday night. Even though Clemson is the No. 1 team in the nation, the Tigers come to South Bend without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a shorthanded defense. The best path for a win by the Fighting Irish starts by winning the battle in the trenches on offense, allowing Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree to find running room behind a standout offensive line. Quarterback Ian Book doesn’t need huge numbers, but the senior needs to hit on a big play or two, consistently connect on the midrange passes and keep drives alive on third downs. Defensively, Notre Dame has to keep Travis Etienne in check and force a receiver outside of Amari Rodgers to win this game. The Fighting Irish and Tigers battle for four quarters, but D.J. Uiagalelei makes a couple of big plays in the second half, while Clemson’s defense steps up with the game on the line to pull out the victory in South Bend.
Prediction: Clemson 31, Notre Dame 27
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions