Even with Trevor Lawrence at starting quarterback, slowing down running back Travis Etienne still might be Notre Dame’s primary objective against Clemson.
The Irish sold out against the run when quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei started in the place of Lawrence (COVID-19) at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 7. Etienne had his worst rushing performance as a collegiate starter, totaling 28 yards on 18 carries in the 47-40 double-overtime thriller.
Look for the No. 2 Irish (10-0) to emphasize stopping Etienne when facing the CFP No. 3/AP No. 4 Tigers (9-1) again on Saturday (4 p.m. EST on ABC) at the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, N.C.
“He’s an outstanding player. You have to know where he is,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “You have to have your run fits down. You have to be disciplined. It’s a team defensive effort and we’re going to have to have a similar one. He’s an explosive football player that we have such great respect for.
“We’ve tried to defend him and obviously when you put your game plan together, the first thing you’ve got to think of is how you are going to slow him down. So, tremendous respect for him. We are going to have to get him on the ground and make sure that he doesn’t get out in the second level.
“If he gets out in the second level, he’s a problem. You’ve got to get him before he gets started, and that means controlling the line of scrimmage. It starts with controlling the line of scrimmage and being sure tacklers.”
Neutralizing Etienne has not been as challenging in 2020 compared to previous seasons. The senior eclipsed 90 rushing yards in just two of his first 10 games this season. Etienne (148 carries for 758 yards and 12 touchdowns) still brings elite speed and explosiveness, though. And he must be accounted for in the passing game (41 catches for 512 yards and two scores).
Maybe having Lawrence at quarterback against Notre Dame will create more favorable opportunities for Etienne. Or maybe the Tigers will abandon the running game and air it out more. They did so against the Irish in the first game. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-44 passing.
So stopping Etienne will still be a focus for Notre Dame. But how will Round 2 of this matchup look different than Round 1? We caught up with Matt Connolly of The State for more insight on the Tigers.
• From Clemson being without Lawrence and key defensive players to Notre Dame benefiting from fluky plays, the case has been made that the Irish needed a lot to go their way to beat the Tigers last month. Is that how you perceived the result?
Connolly: “I really didn’t see it that way, no. I know a lot has been made about Clemson’s missed opportunities, but Notre Dame missed out on plenty of opportunities as well. In the first quarter Notre Dame had fourth-and-1 at the Clemson 2, jumped offsides and settled for a field goal. Later in the first half, the Irish had first-and-goal and settled for a field goal. In the second half, Ian Book was going in for a touchdown and fumbled through the end zone. I’m sure Brian Kelly would tell you Notre Dame didn’t play anywhere near its best game in Round 1 either. I’m expecting another really good game on Saturday.”
• From a schematic standpoint, how do you think Clemson will approach this game differently than the first one?
Connolly: “I think defensively just having Tyler Davis and James Skalski back is huge, if Skalski is able to go. Both players are really good against the run and also pretty good pass rushers. Clemson shouldn’t have to blitz as much to stop the run or get pressure if Davis and Skalski play (although Brent Venables will still send plenty of blitzes). As much as anything, Skalski is the heart-and-soul of Clemson’s defense, and having him on the field should help from a leadership standpoint and with making sure everyone is lined up.
“Offensively, I’d expect a little more quarterback runs. That’s something Clemson has leaned on historically in big games, whether it be Deshaun Watson, Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence. Clemson had to pick its spots to run D.J. Uiagalelei in the first matchup, as the freshman had a banged up shoulder and the staff wanted to protect him as much as possible.”
• Do the Tigers have an answer if the Irish sell out against the run again? Is there a way they can get Etienne going, or will that not matter as much if the passing game is highly effective again?
Connolly: “Clemson would love to get the running game going, but if not, the Tigers have no problem throwing 40-50 times if that’s what it takes to win. Clemson trusts Trevor Lawrence to not turn the ball over, and after Uiagalelei passed for more than 400 yards last month, Clemson likes its matchups with Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers at wideout against the Notre Dame secondary.”
• Notre Dame lost center Jarrett Patterson (foot) and will start either sophomore Zeke Correll or senior Josh Lugg at that position. How much of an impact will having Clemson defensive tackle Tyler Davis back in the lineup have on this game?
Connolly: “A lot. Davis is probably Clemson’s best defensive lineman. He was named second-team All-ACC as a freshman last year after posting 51 tackles, 9 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He has 10 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in 2020, but he’s played only 128 snaps this season due to injuries. For comparison, Tigers starting safety Nolan Turner has played 484 snaps this year.”
• How have Clemson fans received Notre Dame’s one-year membership as part of the ACC? And what do they think about the possibility of playing the Irish three times this season?
Connolly: “I think they’ve enjoyed it. Clemson has proven time and time again that it can compete with the best teams, no matter the conference. But Tigers fans have also heard for years how bad the ACC is outside of Clemson. Having another really good team and a highly-anticipated ACC title game is fun for everyone, I think. As for possibly playing Notre Dame three times in one season, they’d love it because Clemson would for sure be in the playoff and likely in the national title game.”
• Score prediction: Clemson 35, Notre Dame 30.
Connolly: “I think Trevor Lawrence makes just enough plays to pull off the victory. I’m expecting a very competitive game where both teams have some success offensively. Should be a fun one.”