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5 Things to Watch in Clemson vs. Notre Dame Showdown

5 Things to Watch in Clemson vs. Notre Dame Showdown

5 Things to Watch in Clemson vs. Notre Dame Showdown

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will host the top-ranked Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night in a top-5 showdown between two of the nation's three remaining unbeaten Power 5 teams with more than two games played (Alabama is the other).

Notre Dame has won 22 straight games at home dating back to Sept. 30, 2017, starting with a victory over Miami (Ohio) and extending through its Oct. 17, 12-7 win over Louisville. Notre Dame sits tied with Ohio State for the second-longest home winning streak among Power 5 programs, trailing only Clemson (27).

Even with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence out on Saturday after missing the Boston College game due to testing positive for COVID-19, there is no shortage of top-line talent set to take the field on Saturday night. Here are the key factors that will be instrumental in determining whether the Tigers will remain unbeaten or if the Fighting Irish will extend their FBS-leading winning streak to 13 games and notch their first home win against a No. 1 team since 1993 (Florida State).

No. 1 Clemson at No. 4 Notre Dame: Key Factors to Watch

1. Can D.J. Uiagalelei solve Notre Dame's defensive line?

Uiagalelei was pressed into starting duty once Trevor Lawrence was ruled out for the Boston College game, and the true freshman did not disappoint. Uiagalelei completed 30 of his 41 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns, adding 25 rushing yards rushing and a score on six carries. He definitely looked more comfortable as the game went on, as the Tigers scored the final 21 points to escape Death Valley with a six-point win over the scrappy Eagles.

His next task will be going up against a Notre Dame defensive front that has caused all sorts of problems this season. Defensive end Daelin Hayes was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week for his performance in Saturday's game against Georgia Tech when he notched two sacks and forced two fumbles. His play contributed to a unit that totaled five sacks and held the Yellow Jackets to just 88 rushing yards in the game. For the season, the Irish lead the ACC and boast top-10 marks nationally in total defense (267.2 ypg, 6th) and scoring defense (10.3 ppg, 4th). Solving such a productive unit presents a tall task for any quarterback, let alone one making his second career collegiate start.

2. Which running back shines brighter?

The two starting running backs in this game have been off to a hot start in 2020. Clemson's Travis Etienne became the ACC's all-time leading rusher following his 84-yard performance against Boston College. Now with 4,644 yards on the ground, Etienne broke Ted Brown’s (4,602) record that had stood since 1978. With 606 rushing yards (5th in ACC, 11th in FBS) entering Saturday's matchup with Notre Dame, Etienne will go up against a defense that ranks second in the ACC and ninth in the nation against the run, allowing just 93.7 rushing yards per game in 2020.

Not to be outdone, Notre Dame's Kyren Williams is just one spot behind Etienne in both the ACC and national ranks with 600 rushing yards. Williams has already produced three 100-yard games — Duke (112), Florida State (185), and Louisville (127) — after seeing just four carries (gained 26 yards on them) in 2019. Williams also has seven rushing touchdowns on his stat sheet, two of them coming on Saturday against Georgia Tech. Clemson's defense is right behind Notre Dame in the ACC in run defense (99.9 ypg) so both running backs will have to earn what they get on the ground on Saturday night.

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3. Can one of Notre Dame's wide receivers break through against Clemson’s secondary?

While the Irish have won each of their first six games by an average of 24.5 points per game, the passing attack has struggled to find a rhythm. Quarterback Ian Book has thrown for just 204.2 yards per game in 2020, and no Irish receiver averages even 50 yards per game. The receiving corps has posted just two 100-yard games in 2020, with Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek each notching 107 yards against Florida State and Pittsburgh, respectively.

The ability of the offense to create big plays will be critical against a Clemson defense that has stifled nearly every team it has met, including Notre Dame. In the last two meetings between these teams, the Irish have mustered just 25 total points, 22 of which came in a 2015 loss in Death Valley. Since the start of the 2018 season, only eight opposing players have recorded 100-yard games against Clemson, and none have done so during the 2020 regular season.

4. Can Notre Dame's defense contain Clemson's passing game?

Through seven games, Clemson has scored 46.1 points per game, which leads the ACC and trails only Alabama's 47.2 for the top mark nationally. Despite Etienne's continued strong production, the Tigers' passing offense is largely to thank for those prolific numbers. Between Lawrence and Uiagalelei, Clemson is averaging 341.4 passing yards per game in 2020, which leads the ACC and is the eighth overall. The Tigers also claim two of the conference's top 10 receivers — Amari Rodgers (586 receiving yards receiving, 2nd) and Etienne (434, 9th).

Notre Dame, though, has been quite successful in limiting the damage opponents have done through the air. Through the season's midpoint, the Irish boast the ACC's No. 1 pass defense (173.5 ypg), which ranks ninth in the nation. Defensive backs Shaun Crawford and Nick McCloud, both graduate students, have seen plenty of Clemson's potent offense throughout their careers, and sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton is a rising star anchoring defensive coordinator Clark Lea's secondary.

5. Can Clemson's vaunted defensive front overpower Notre Dame's veteran offensive line?

This will be a crucial matchup to watch, as defensive coordinator Brent Venables has all but tormented opposing offenses attempting to scheme for his unit. The Tigers have amassed 28 sacks and 65 tackles for a loss this season, good for second and third in the nation, respectively. The havoc they've created has truly been a team effort, however, as 16 different Tigers have notched at least one sack this season while only defensive linemen Myles Murphy (3.5) and Bryan Bresee (3) have more than 2.5.

Notre Dame's starting offensive line has totaled 137 career starts between its five veteran (one junior, two seniors, two graduate students) starters — Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, Jarrett Patterson, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey — the second-most starts among a starting front in FBS. The Irish have, up to now, done well to protect Book, entering Saturday night’s game tied for the ACC lead in sacks allowed (11) and ranking in second in rushing offense (231.0 ypg) after a 277-yard effort against Georgia Tech this past Saturday.

Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Clemson 27

Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions

— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.