Notre Dame defense confident in capability to slow down Trevor Lawrence and Clemson

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Daelin Hayes couldn’t help but laugh at how his teammate talked about Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Some of the words Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton used to describe Lawrence could have been used to describe a great quarterback … or a great supermodel.

“He has great legs along with a great arm,” Hamilton said.

But slowing down Lawrence in Saturday’s ACC Championship will be no laughing matter. Hayes, a fifth-year defensive end and captain, knows from experience what Lawrence can do for No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1 ACC).

“He’s deceptively fast,” Hayes said. “I remember back in 2018, we left that game thinking he was faster than we anticipated. His running ability and then his experience and decision-making back there is going to be the biggest difference.”

Even though freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards against No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0) in the 47-40 Irish victory in November while Lawrence was sidelined with COVID-19, Clemson’s offense can still be better with Lawrence back in the lineup.

What Lawrence did as a freshman against Notre Dame in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal was pick the Irish apart too. In that 30-3 victory, Lawrence finished 27-of-39 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Lawrence gained 25 yards on four rushes, but he also lost 19 yards on three sacks.

The difference between Uiagalelei and Lawrence can’t necessarily be measured in statistics.

“The experience that Trevor brings and confidence that he puts in his teammates around him when he’s on the field, that’s going to make a big impact on the game this weekend,” Hamilton said.

If Notre Dame wants to complete a season sweep of Clemson in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday (4 p.m. EST on ABC), disrupting Lawrence will be crucial. It’s not a coincidence that Lawrence’s worst passing efficiency rating of his career came in the only loss of his 34-game career as a starter.

In January’s 42-25 loss to LSU in the National Championship, Lawrence was limited to 18-of-37 passing for 234 yards and no touchdowns. His passing efficiency rating of 101.8 was 13 points lower than any start in his career and nearly 64 points lower than his career rating.

Notre Dame’s defensive performance against Clemson in November had its share of highs and lows. The Irish successfully limited the ACC’s all-time leading running back, Travis Etienne, to 28 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. Recovering two fumbles in the second quarter — one returned for a touchdown by linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and the other forced by him — allowed the Irish to build a 23-10 lead in the first half.

But Clemson slowly chipped away at that lead with big plays in the passing game. All the good defense in the first half was neutralized when Clemson took its first lead on a one-yard touchdown run by Uiagalelei with 3:33 left in the game. The Irish offense forced overtime and allowed the defense to redeem itself in the second overtime with a pair of sacks and forcing a panic lateral on fourth-and-24 to seal the victory.

“The defense as a whole, although we gave up 40 points, we made big stops when we needed to,” said Hamilton, who recorded eight tackles and one tackle for a loss in the victory. “We had the turnovers and the second overtime. The defense as a whole played well. We’re going to build on that this weekend.”

The secondary, however, feels like it has something to prove after allowing nearly 10 yards per pass attempt to Uiagalelei.

“If we put together all of our abilities and our teamwork, we’re the best secondary in the country,” Hamilton said. “It’s just a matter of putting it together, following the game plan and not messing up. Those mistakes are going to happen. It’s a matter of how the secondary is going to bounce back.

“We want the game to come down to us. If it comes down to a passing game, we want that. We accept the challenge.”

Notre Dame will likely need a more consistent pass rush against Clemson on Saturday too. The only two sacks of the first game — one by Hayes and one shared by Owusu-Koramoah and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji — came in the second overtime. The physicality that Notre Dame’s front seven played with against the run finally paid off against the pass in those moments.

“Our box in general is super physical, so over the course of the game that really takes its toll,” Hayes said while noting the importance of Notre Dame’s rotation on the defensive line. “Having those fresh legs coming at an offensive line and then our mentality to be one of the most, if not the most, physical boxes in the country.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea will have to find a way to push all the right buttons against Clemson’s high-powered offense once again. That could be a lot to ask of any coach, let alone one who was interviewing for and landing another coaching job in the weeks leading up to the game.

But Notre Dame’s defenders trust that Lea’s focus won’t stray from putting them in the best positions Saturday.

“We all had our little moment, and we were really happy for him, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s still our defensive coordinator,” Hamilton said. “He told us that he’s going to be our DC until the end of the year. His focus hasn’t been taken away at all.

“I just got reminded that he was the head coach at Vanderbilt (Tuesday). I kind of forgot. It’s obvious that he’s still focused on ND and winning a championship here.”

Notre Dame has the opportunity to win a championship thanks in large part to its defensive play throughout the season. The Irish entered the week ranked eighth in the FBS in rushing defense (99.7 yards allowed per game), 12th in scoring defense (17.1 points) and 21st in passing efficiency defense (115.93).

That’s why the Irish defense still has confidence in the face of any doubters.

“At the end of the day, you have to go play ball,” Hayes said. “Your ball is going to speak for itself. Playing ball the right way, the brand of football that we love to play, that’s going to put us where we need to be.

“As long as we stay focused on that, we go out and play hard and we play to the standard of the brotherhood, then the narrative and the stories and the this and the that perspectives, that’ll all take care of itself.”

Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes (9) intercepts a pass against Syracuse on Senior Day, Dec. 5  at Notre Dame Stadium.