Dexter Williams is just one offensive playmaker the Irish can throw at Clemson's vaunted defense
When the No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish take the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 29 for the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, they will do so as heavy underdogs against the also-undefeated and No. 2 Clemson Tigers. Notre Dame makes its eighth Cotton Bowl appearance in school history and has enjoyed quite a bit of success in the game, a foundation upon which it hopes to continue building with a win in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff. A win on Saturday means a date with the winner of the Orange Bowl between top-ranked Alabama and No. 4 Oklahoma.
Both games promise to be exciting matchups between four of the nation’s best teams. Here are five reasons why the Irish will emerge victorious in the Cotton Bowl and secure a berth in the College Football Playoff national championship.
5 Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Win the Cotton Bowl
1. History on its side
Steeped in history and tradition at every turn, Notre Dame is quite familiar with the Cotton Bowl and the surrounding festivities. In fact, its history in this bowl game is quite heavily on its side. The Irish are 5-2 all-time in the Cotton Bowl and have won their last two appearances, both against Texas A&M. Among teams with at least three appearances in the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame’s .714 winning percentage is the best.
This game will be a first in one notable area: all seven times Notre Dame has played in the Cotton Bowl, the Irish’s opponents have all hailed from the state of Texas, which means they were playing closer to home. Perhaps that plays as an advantage since the crowd won’t be decidedly favoring the in-state school, though Clemson fans certainly travel well.
2. Head coach Brian Kelly
Kelly has turned the fortunes of this team around and has the Irish in contention for a national championship. Much of Kelly’s rejuvenation, especially in the wake of last season’s November downfall — when Notre Dame lost 41-8 at Miami and 38-20 in the regular-season finale at Stanford — has come from within.
Vowing to be more accessible and approachable with his players, Kelly has pushed all the right buttons with this group and completed a 12-0 regular season for the second time in his nine-year tenure. He’s just the third coach (Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy) to complete two undefeated seasons (no losses and no ties) in school history, and the first in nearly 70 years.
In addition to learning from various mistakes from last year, Kelly has prepared his team well to play in pressure-packed situations on the road. The last five weeks of the regular season meant cross-country trips to San Diego (Navy), Evanston (Northwestern), the Bronx (Syracuse), and Los Angeles (USC), which contributed to the Irish’s fifth-highest travel distance among the preseason top-40 teams. With pressure mounting each week, Notre Dame still won all of those games by at least a touchdown, and all but USC were double-digit victories. Kelly would love nothing more than to add to those winning ways — especially coming off last season’s Citrus Bowl victory — as he remains hungry to cement his place among the nation’s top coaches and those with statues on Notre Dame’s campus.
3. Ferocious pass defense
This Notre Dame pass defense has wreaked havoc on opponents all season. The Irish’s seven touchdown passes allowed are the second fewest by any team this season, behind only Mississippi State’s five. Notre Dame also ranks second in the FBS in fewest yards per attempt (5.35) and yards per completion (9.54).
As a unit, this group is complete and plays well together from front to back. Getting pressure on the quarterback has been key, and Julian Okwara has been one of the best in that area all season. According to Pro Football Focus, Okwara registered 58 total pressures, seventh among edge defenders, and an FBS-best 35 pressures on third and fourth down. Okwara also won 23.6 percent of his pass-rushing snaps, good enough for fifth in the nation. On the back end, Julian Love has already set the school record for pass breakups (15) while allowing just 53 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed. Jalen Elliott was all over the field as well, tallying four interceptions and four additional pass breakups in the regular season. This group also could benefit from the return of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who was injured early in the season but has been rehabbing and should be able to play in the bowl.
“We're deep [along the defensive line], and they've been able to get pressure on the quarterback all year,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said in a press conference on Monday. “But we're good all across the board, and they've done a great job getting pressure up front. And then we've held up in the back end with a lot of good talent and execution.”
In short, this is one of the best defenses — if not the best — that Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence will face all year. Saturday will tell a lot about his ability to compete against a high-caliber defense.
4. Big play potential
In order to beat a Clemson team as talented as the 2018 group, chunk plays will be absolutely critical. That’s why it helps tremendously to have a bevy of weapons to keep a defense honest and open up the playbook.
Offensive coordinator Chip Long can rely on any number of receivers from Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool on the outside to Chris Finke in the slot, as well as tight ends Alize Mack, Nic Weishar and Cole Kmet. Boykin has only dropped three passes this season, tied for fifth fewest in the nation, per PFF. Boykin, Claypool and Mack all stand at least 6-foot-4, which should present mismatches against Clemson’s starting cornerbacks, A.J. Terrell (6-2) and Trayvon Mullen (6-1).
Additionally, Dexter Williams has displayed an explosiveness that has provided an additional threat to the offense. He has 26 runs of 10 or more yards, contributing to his 6.6 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns in just eight games. If he can find any running room against Clemson’s vaunted front seven — which reportedly took a hit with All-ACC defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence testing positive for a banned substance, meaning he would miss the Cotton Bowl — just the possibility of Williams breaking off a big run can set up the play-action passing game. This leads to the final reason...
5. Ian Book
Book has been the engine that has made the Irish go this season, and that shouldn’t be any different in the Cotton Bowl. Book enters the game with a 70.4 percent completion rate, good for fourth in the country. He also hasn’t been afraid to take shots downfield, as his 8.81 yards per pass attempt ranks 11th in FBS.
Regardless of whether or not Dexter Lawrence will play — though right now it appears he will not — the aerial attack is the recipe to beat Clemson. With the Tigers’ secondary giving up plenty of size to Notre Dame’s receiving corps, many of the Irish’s best matchups will come in the passing game. Clemson’s two closest games this season came against Texas A&M and Syracuse, who put up 430 and 250 passing yards, respectively (South Carolina also threw for 510 in the regular-season finale). It stands to reason that the Irish will need to surpass the 250-yard mark to have a chance on Saturday, which Book has done in all eight of his starts.
Whether he can make it nine-for-nine against the country’s fourth-ranked defense will likely determine if they can stay undefeated and more importantly, get a shot at playing for another national championship.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.