Opponent Outlook: How vulnerable is top-ranked Clemson against Notre Dame?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence being unavailable after testing positive for COVID-19 last week may not be the only reason the Tigers are vulnerable.

Top-ranked Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC) will come to South Bend to play No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0) on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EST on NBC) with a few concerns unrelated to its quarterback situation.

The Tigers began this season without top wide receiver Justyn Ross, who is sidelined indefinitely by what head coach Dabo Swinney called a “congenital fusion” in his spine. They had already lost their leading receiver in 2019, Tee Higgins, to the NFL Draft.

Entering this season, Clemson featured four new starters on its offensive line and eight total on defense. There have been growing pains in both areas. The Tigers rank No. 55 in rushing yards per game (166.6) despite having an elite running back in Travis Etienne. On defense, Clemson has allowed 49 points in the past two weeks to Syracuse and Boston College combined.

A number of significant Tiger players could be unavailable against the Irish, including Lawrence (COVID-19), Ross (spine), defensive end Justin Foster (undisclosed), defensive tackle Tyler Davis (ankle) and linebackers Mike Jones Jr. (hamstring) and James Skalski (groin). Defensive end Xavier Thomas will miss the first half against Notre Dame after being ejected for a targeting penalty in the second half of last week’s game.

So the play of true freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei should not solely dictate how Clemson performs. The Tigers will rely on other key players who are inexperienced to step up. Uigalelelei, a five-star recruit in the 2020 class, also impressed against the Eagles. He completed 30-of-41 passes for 342 yards with two touchdowns while turning six carries into 25 yards and a score in the 34-28 victory.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s football program provided another COVID-19 update on Monday. Of the 240 COVID-19 tests administered from last Tuesday through Sunday, one football player tested positive. He did not travel to the Georgia Tech game last week. As of Monday, two players were in isolation while another was in quarantine due to contact tracing.

What more is there to learn about Clemson? We caught with Matt Connolly of The State for more insight on the Tigers.

What was your first impression of Uiagalelei?

Connolly: “I was very, very impressed. Obviously Uiagalelei arrived with a lot of hype as a top 10 overall recruit in the country. But you never really know what you have in a player until they go out and perform in a game. Uiagalelei’s incredible arm talent is something that has been well-documented, but to me the most impressive thing I saw was his command for the offense. For the most part he made the right decisions, knew where his hot reads were and most importantly didn’t turn the ball over. Notre Dame will obviously be a step up in competition for the true freshman, but with a running game that was struggling and overcoming a 28-10 first-half deficit, Uiagalelei had a strong debut overall.”

How do you expect Clemson’s approach to be on offense without Lawrence, especially when facing a Notre Dame defense that ranks top 10 in every major category?

Connolly: “Clemson would obviously like to get Travis Etienne and the running game going early. There are two problems with that — 1. Notre Dame knows this and will be paying close attention to Etienne. 2. Clemson’s offensive line has four new starters and has struggled with run blocking this year. Clemson averaged more than 240 rushing yards per game the past two years. The Tigers are averaging 167 this year. Etienne is also averaging the fewest yards per carry of his career. While Etienne isn’t making as many plays in the running game, he is a serious threat in the passing game. He’s currently second on the team in receptions and receiving yards and is averaging 15 yards per catch.

“My guess is Clemson throws swing passes and screens to Etienne frequently and puts him outside at receiver some as well. Clemson will also try to get top receiver Amari Rodgers some early touches. Senior Cornell Powell had 11 catches last week and has been very involved the past few games. Tight end Braden Galloway is another pass catcher to watch out for.”

How do you compare Clemson’s defense to the elite group Notre Dame saw in 2018? Which key defensive players could be unavailable on Saturday?

Connolly: “This one is still really good, but it isn’t as good. When you have three first-round picks on your defensive line as Clemson did in 2018, you can stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz. This defense has some talented defensive linemen, but the group is young and not as dominant. Clemson’s best DT — Tyler Davis — has missed the past two games and is questionable. And its best DE — Justin Foster — hasn’t played all year because he is in “protocol” according to Dabo Swinney.

“Linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones Jr. have also been banged up. Skalski, Clemson’s defensive leader, has already been ruled out for Saturday. Jones is questionable. Clemson has eight new starters in all and is making some mistakes you would expect from a young defense.

With all of that said, this is still a Brent Venables defense filled with talented players. Clemson is No. 7 nationally in total defense. But compared to the 2018 group, I don’t think it’s as good.”

If Clemson and Notre Dame split in the regular season and ACC Championship Game, how optimistic are you that the Tigers would still make the College Football Playoff?

Connolly: “Pretty optimistic, especially if Clemson’s loss is Saturday without its Heisman candidate QB. In 2017, Clemson lost to Syracuse in the regular season and still entered the playoff as the No. 1 seed. The committee cited Clemson’s loss coming when starting QB Kelly Bryant was hurt as the reason why. You would have to think that Clemson has proven enough the past few years to get the benefit of the doubt if the Tigers are in contention for a playoff spot. Clemson has reached the College Football Playoff five consecutive seasons, the national title game four of the past five years and has won two of the past four national championships.”

What are the keys for Clemson to win this game? If the Tigers lose, why would that be?

Connolly: “For Clemson to win, defensively I think it starts with stopping the run. The Tigers are allowing about 100 rushing yards per game, but that number is so low in part because of 28 sacks. Teams have had success running up the middle against Clemson, particularly when Skalski and Davis have been out. Offensively, I think Clemson needs someone to step up outside of Etienne and Rodgers. Clemson’s receivers and backs other than those two have been inconsistent. Clemson also needs its offensive line to play its best game of the season.

“If Clemson loses I think it will be because Notre Dame establishes the running game early and is able to turn that into some big plays off play action. It will also be because Clemson’s offensive line struggles to open up running lanes, Uiagalelei has too much on his shoulders as a freshman making his first career road start and makes some critical mistakes.”

Score prediction: Notre Dame 27, Clemson 24.

Connolly: “It’s early in the week, and to be honest I’m not ready to make a final pick yet. I’d like to know if Clemson’s banged up players will end up healthy this week first. With that said, I think asking a true freshman QB making his first career road start to go up against a top 10 defense is a tough ask. Particularly when Clemson could be without several defensive starters as well. I think the game will be close and Clemson will have the ball with a chance to win late but will come up just short.”

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) throws a pass against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 29, 2018.
Clemson defensive lineman Xavier Thomas (3) sacks Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey (2) on Sept. 29, 2018.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei walk off the field after the game against Boston College in Clemson, S.C., last Saturday. The freshman QB will be making his first road start when the Tigers visit Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night.

No. 4 NOTRE DAME (6-0) vs. No. 1 CLEMSON (7-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Clemson by 5 1/2