Five keys for Notre Dame against Clemson: What surprises could the Irish pull out?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Here are five keys to No. 3 Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff semifinal clash with No. 2 Clemson at 4 p.m. EST Saturday in the Cotton Bowl.

COUNTERACT CLEMSON D-LINE

Even with the Tigers being without suspended All-America defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, they would stack up with Michigan as the best defensive line ND has faced. Texas A&M and South Carolina, the two teams that gave Clemson trouble, both struggled to run the ball. The Tigers are No. 3 nationally with 92.9 rushing yards allowed per game. They rank No. 3 in sacks and No. 2 in tackles for loss. The Irish offensive line must come to play, and ND will need to be creative to establish the run.

LEAN ON DEFENSE

There have not been many true freshmen quarterbacks as good as Trevor Lawrence. But he has not faced many defenses as good as ND’s. ND and Fresno State are the only teams to not allow more than 27 points in a game this season. The Irish rank No. 20 in total defense, No. 2 in pass-efficiency defense, No. 10 in scoring defense and No. 31 in rush defense. ND will need to make Lawrence uncomfortable, as well as limit Clemson running back Travis Etienne, who has the fifth-most rushing yards nationally with 1,463 yards along with 21 touchdowns in 176 carries.

SUCCESSFUL SURPRISE

Offensive coordinator Chip Long played coy this week when asked if there will be a special package for backup QB Brandon Wimbush. Pulling out a surprise is something the Irish have been hinting at in recent weeks, though. Whether it comes through Wimbush or utilizing a young, speedy receiver like Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys III, ND’s risk cannot turn into a mistake. To a smaller degree, the Irish could expand the role of Jafar Armstrong — especially in the passing game — if Dexter Williams can’t get it going in the run game. Or Ian Book could throw 40-plus times, as South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and A&M’s Kellen Mond did.

EXPLOIT A WEAKNESS

There’s a narrative that Clemson’s secondary is its weakness. That’s been the case at times, as Bentley and Mond shredded the Tigers for 510 and 430 passing yards, respectively. Long called the narrative “silly,” pointing out that the Tigers possess long, athletic cornerbacks and two third-team All-ACC players in cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Tanner Muse. The Irish have been among the best second-half teams this season. Whether it’s in the secondary or elsewhere, they will need to identify and exploit a weakness.

WIN TURNOVER BATTLE

The Irish enter Saturday as double-digit underdogs. With almost no margin for error, ND cannot cough up the football. That hasn’t been a problem with Book at quarterback, and the ND defense can be suffocating inside its own territory and the red zone. Remaining ahead will allow Book to stick to his comfortable, efficient passing game.

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) runs the ball during ND’s 42-13 romp over Florida State, Nov. 10 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Travis Etienne

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)

WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m. (EST)

WHAT: CFP Semifinal/Cotton Bowl

WHERE: AT&T Stadium (100,000); Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Clemson by 12½