Everything seems to be setting up for a tougher day for Notre Dame’s offense.
In Saturday’s ACC Championship, No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1 ACC) will have three starters back on its defense for its rematch with the No. 2 Irish (10-0, 9-0). Defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones Jr. will be in the Clemson lineup after missing Notre Dame’s 47-40, double-overtime victory over the Tigers in November.
The linebackers alone will make a difference in the expectations for Clemson’s defense. And Davis might be the best interior defensive lineman the Irish have faced this season.
“Skalski obviously is a quarterback for their defense. He certainly makes a difference,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “The other thing he has is size. He makes a difference. You have to plan for him, certainly as somebody that physically has a different makeup as well. His size, his leadership is certainly going to make a difference.
“Jones obviously has the athletic ability to play in their defense in a manner that allows them to do more things.”
But Kelly pushed back on the idea of three players being the difference in Saturday’s outcome. He took the classic coach perspective of it requiring all 11 players on the field in order to discover success.
“When we start to look at one player making a difference, we might be reading a little bit too much into it,” Kelly said. “It’s the ability for all 11 players to play at a high level. If he’s playing well, but three or four other guys aren’t playing at the same level, it negates it.”
Kelly already went on record last week warning that rematches aren’t always as high scoring as the first matchup. Kelly hasn’t coached in a rematch at Notre Dame, but he reflected on some from his time at Grand Valley State.
“You learn so much about your opponent, and both teams do, that sometimes when you play a second time, it makes it hard to move the football,” Kelly said. “Because the defense gets the edge the second time. I’m telling you that right now.
“Those are probably the things that I’ve learned in the rematches, that the defenses tend to get a little bit of an edge against you because they have seen you and they know a little bit about where they can lean on you a little bit.”
So how can Notre Dame come close to matching its 47-point and 518-yard output from November? Let’s take a look at how the Irish offense can find success Saturday in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium (4 p.m. EST on ABC).
Notre Dame’s recipe for success against Clemson wasn’t that different from what’s worked for Notre Dame all season long. The Irish were able to establish the running game, find a few big plays in the passing game and convert third downs.
Against Clemson, Notre Dame rushed for 174 yards and three touchdowns on designed runs for an average of 5.4 yards per carry. The Irish are averaging 5.9 yards per designed run this season with their starting offense.
Quarterback Ian Book threw for 310 yards and rushed for 34 yards on his 47 dropbacks against Clemson for an average of 7.3 yards per dropback. The Irish are averaging 7.6 yards per dropback with Book at quarterback through 10 games.
Notre Dame converted 10 of its 19 third-down attempts (52.6%) in the victory over Clemson. The Irish are converting 51.8 percent of their third downs this season.
While the level of competition increased against Clemson, the Irish found what’s proven to be average production relative to their standards this season. The performance validated the blueprint that Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees designed for Notre Dame’s offense and gave them one they could repeat in the games since then.
Notre Dame’s offense should know that it doesn’t have to play beyond itself to find success against the Tigers once again. The Irish certainly gained confidence from the performance, but that doesn’t mean Clemson won’t be confident in its ability to slow down the Irish.
“In the game that we played, both teams got a better sense of who they are,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that there’s an advantage one way or the other. This is still going to come down to the fundamentals and players making plays.”
The big-time players for Notre Dame’s offense were the same faces that have established themselves throughout the season: Book (22-of-39 for 310 yards and 1 TD), running back Kyren Williams (140 rushing yards and three TDs), wide receiver Javon McKinley (five catches for 102 yards) and tight end Michael Mayer (five catches for 67 yards).
“There are really good players on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be a really closely contested football game. It’s going to match up the way people think it is.”
Find the speed
Senior wide receiver Avery Davis provided the surprise performance in Notre Dame’s win over Clemson. His 53-yard reception on a deep pass down the middle from Book set up his four-yard, game-tying touchdown catch in the final minute.
Davis provided a little boost of speed while the Irish were missing Braden Lenzy to a hamstring injury. Lenzy, a junior, has been the tantalizing speed option at wide receiver that hasn’t materialized this season. Lenzy played in the last two games, but he only caught one pass for zero yards against Syracuse.
Maybe Lenzy can finally break free against Clemson, but counting on a receiver with only seven catches all season might be a bit of a leap. The Irish should be able to find more ways to get Davis involved earlier in the game. He doesn’t have the same speed as Lenzy, but he’s still one of the fastest wide receiver options on the team.
Notre Dame should also look to involve freshman running back Chris Tyree. He was practically absent in the first Clemson game when he rushed twice for a loss of four yards and didn’t field any of Clemson’s eight touchbacks on kickoffs.
The Irish have tinkered in recent weeks with putting both Williams and Tyree on the field at the same time with one lining up as a receiver. Maybe that’s a small wrinkle that can create one or two more big plays Saturday when every big play matters.
For as great of a day Notre Dame’s offense had the first time around against Clemson, the Irish left a lot of points on the board with three of their six trips to the red zone ending without touchdowns.
Clemson made Notre Dame earn red-zone yardage, but self-inflicted mistakes prevented the Irish from capitalizing on their opportunities. Mayer, a freshman, committed a pair of blunders to end Notre Dame’s first two trips to the red zone. He flinched for a false start penalty on fourth-and-1 at the Clemson two-yard line then later dropped what could have been a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the nine.
Both of Mayer’s mistakes were followed by Notre Dame settling for Jonathan Doerer field goals in the first half.
Book made an even bigger mistake late in the third quarter. As he was converting a third-and-1 to put Notre Dame inside the Clemson five-yard line, Book fumbled into the end zone and Clemson recovered the loose ball.
Notre Dame’s offense shorted itself 15 potential points on those three mistakes alone. The Irish can’t count on being able to survive through those kinds of mishaps again.