Five keys for Notre Dame against Clemson: Irish offense needs to be willing to adapt

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Here are five keys for No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) when it hosts No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0) on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EST on NBC).


It is the biggest game in Notre Dame Stadium since the “Bush Push” game against USC in 2005. So the Irish can’t afford to psych themselves out because of the moment. Playing with a level head will be critical if Notre Dame wants to pull off the upset. Playing nervous tends to translate to turnovers, penalties and other costly mistakes. The Irish won’t have a sellout crowd or cold weather on their side, so they will need to make sure they aren’t giving the Tigers an unneeded advantage.


Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has established himself as one of the top assistant coaches in the country. His defensive scheme has been known to confuse opposing offenses with complex looks and disguises. Notre Dame boasts the nation’s No. 12 rushing offense (231 rushing yards per game) but struggles in the passing game. Clemson may load the box and use a quarterback spy to limit Ian Book as a runner. If the Tigers bottle up the Irish running game, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees must be willing to adapt and ditch his run-heavy style.


Faring well against Clemson’s defense will require Notre Dame to keep them honest. The Tigers will be able to sell out against the run if they are not challenged through the air. Wide receivers Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek and tight end Michael Mayer have been Book’s most reliable targets. They will need to create separation when matched up in man coverage. Then Book must be able to correctly anticipate their routes and deliver them the ball. Book likely does not need to throw for 400 yards, but having a few chunk plays downfield will help this offense tremendously.


No one on the Tiger offense presents a bigger threat than running back Travis Etienne. With his elite speed, Etienne can score on any play. The senior brings versatility as someone who can run between and outside the offensive tackles (103 carries for 606 yards and nine touchdowns) while also being effective as a pass catcher (29 receptions for 434 yards and two scores). Will the Irish feature star rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as the Etienne-stopper? Will safety Kyle Hamilton operate closer to the line of scrimmage? Will it be a collective effort? How Notre Dame will look to defend Etienne figures to be one of the more interesting matchups in this one.


Notre Dame and Clemson are among the best teams on third down offensively and defensively this season. The Irish rank No. 6 defensively (24.4 percent) and No. 9 offensively (54.1) in third-down conversion percentage. Since its final possession against Louisville, Notre Dame’s offense converted 24-of-36 (66.7) third downs. The Tigers come in at No. 8 defensively (24.4) and No. 18 offensively (50.5). Containing Etienne looks to be a way the Irish defense can get off the field. Keeping Clemson’s defense honest should help Book and Co. move the chains.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees watches players during spring practice on March 5.
Georgia Tech wide receiver Nate McCollum (88) is not able to catch a pass under pressure from Notre Dame’s safety Kyle Hamilton (14) on Oct. 31.

At Notre Dame Stadium (15,525), South Bend, IN

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. EST


Series history: Clemson leads 3-1

Betting line: Notre Dame by 5 1/2