Opponent outlook: Clemson will provide test for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

After an open date to prepare, No. 12 Clemson (3-0) is bracing for a visit from No. 6 Notre Dame (4-0) Saturday night.

Aaron Brenner, Clemson football beat writer for the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier, gives fans a peek at what the Irish might expect from their trip to Death Valley.

ND Insider: What does Notre Dame coming to Death Valley mean to the city and the university?

Aaron Brenner: Ooooh, boy. It is true that Clemson’s brand is starting to spread nationally. Multiple (ESPN) College GameDay appearances in 2013 (along with a top-3 ranking), an ACC title in 2011 and a string of bowl wins over LSU, Ohio State and Oregon have commandeered respect on the gridiron for a school tucked in the upstate of South Carolina about halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte off Interstate 85. But this is Notre freaking Dame. The ACC was so willing to accommodate Notre Dame’s desire to remain independent in football for this very reason — it meant that much to get the Golden Domers to Tallahassee and Charlottesville and now Clemson, where this particular game is being called arguably the hottest ticket in the history of the football program. That both teams are undefeated and ranked in the top 12, and GameDay is once again setting up on Bowman Field, makes even more perfect timing for Clemson to roll out the red carpet.

NDI: What did you learn from Clemson's 20-17 win over Louisville?

Brenner: That Clemson’s defense is for real. The talk around Clemson was a unit that led the nation in 11 categories and sent a bunch of seniors off to the NFL (Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett, etc.) was going to drop off considerably, with only three returning starters in 2015. Early returns have been extremely positive, as the first-string defense was virtually impenetrable the first couple weeks and then holding Louisville to 272 yards (19 rushing, on 28 carries) and one offensive touchdown. The pronounced stars have lived up to their expectations — defensive end Shaq Lawson, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse — while new faces have stepped up big-time, such as defensive tackle Scott Pagano, linebacker Ben Boulware and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley.

NDI: How different is quarterback Deshaun Watson now compared to who he was last year?

Brenner: Minority Report here, but Watson has seemed ... relatively off. Watson actually told me Monday his game at Louisville (21-for-30, 199 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT; 12 carries, 54 yards) was the highest single-game coaching grade he’s received in college, so if the sophomore and his coaches think he’s playing just fine, then more power to them. But the Heisman shine has certainly worn off a bit, in part because Watson’s stats haven’t been over the moon, and in part because he’s been a tad less accurate than he was in limited duty as a freshman. On the bright side for Clemson, Watson looks totally healed from his ACL tear last November and hasn’t appeared to lack confidence when he scrambles. This Notre Dame game, at home, in the national spotlight, should be an ideal litmus test for where Watson belongs among the country’s elite players.

NDI: What's the most vulnerable area and the greatest strength of Clemson?

Brenner: By far, the most vulnerable area has been on kickoff coverage. Traveon Samuel flipped the momentum in Louisville’s favor with a 100-yard touchdown return two Thursdays ago, which nearly cost Clemson its unstained record. Appalachian State also thrived in that arena in Week Two, so without a doubt, the Tigers have spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out that aspect of their special teams for the past week and a half. (Of note, Notre Dame hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011.) The Tigers’ greatest strength right now is probably that defense; quarterbacks have been running for their life vs. Brent Venables’ front seven for the past year and a half, so DeShone Kizer will have to make quick decisions in a deafeningly-loud arena, where the hosts have won 28 of their past 30 games.

NDI: What's the most unique part of the gameday experience at Clemson?

Brenner: “Here it is, the most exciting 25 seconds in college football ...” and ESPN’s Brent Musburger wasn’t talking about Katherine Webb in the stands at the 2013 BCS National Championship. (Sorry, Notre Dame fans.) Musburger made the Hill famous when he gushed over Clemson’s pageantry and pregame entrance, when players and coaches ride buses with a police escort around the stadium from the locker room to Howard’s Rock, which is rubbed by those players and coaches before running down the Hill onto the playing field. Fireworks and balloons fill the air, and Dabo Swinney runs about a 4.4 40 toward the Clemson sideline to get the 81,500 fans in attendance fired up for kickoff. It’s really something to behold, in person or on TV.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) looks to pass the ball over teammate Wayne Gallman during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wofford on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Clemson players run down the hill before the start of an NCAA college football game against Appalachian State Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)