Five keys for Notre Dame against Clemson: Ball-control strategy could work for the Irish

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Here are five keys for No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0) when it plays No. 3 Clemson (9-1) at the ACC Championship Game on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.


Squandered opportunities nearly kept Notre Dame from defeating Clemson on Nov. 7. The Irish scored just one touchdown across four trips to the red zone before their final possession in regulation and winning 47-40 in double-overtime. The Tigers recovered a fumble from quarterback Ian Book near the goal line on one of those trips. Notre Dame settled for a field goal on the two other red-zone possessions. Coming into Saturday, the Irish are tied for No. 83 nationally in red-zone efficiency (80 percent). Being more efficient and taking advantage of turnovers and good field position will be critical for Notre Dame.


Leaning on its ball-control strategy helped Notre Dame neutralize North Carolina’s high-powered offense in its 31-17 win last month. The Irish could use that tactic again on Saturday. By dominating the time of possession, Notre Dame can dictate the game flow and play keep-away. The Tar Heels totaled a lowly 57 plays and saw minimal production from their two 1,000-yard running backs, Javonte Williams (11 carries for 28 yards) and Michael Carter (57 rushing yards on eight attempts). Sustaining long drives on offense and forcing three-and-outs on defense should position the Irish well.


Though Clemson totaled 40 points and 473 yards against Notre Dame, the Tigers were not efficient on third down or in the red zone. They scored touchdowns on just two of their five trips to the red zone in regulation. They finished 4-of-15 on third down. The Irish come in at No. 3 nationally in third-down conversion percentage (26.4 percent). Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence should be expected to put up plenty of points and yards. But Notre Dame could still win in that scenario by forcing critical stops on third down and in the red zone.


Notre Dame cannot afford to be vulnerable on the interior of its offensive line. Junior center Jarrett Patterson (foot) is out for the season, so senior Josh Lugg or Zeke Correll will start in his place. Clemson’s Tyler Davis is one of the best defensive linemen in the ACC. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound defensive tackle was named second-team All-ACC as a freshman last year after posting 51 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. Davis missed an extended period of time and did not play in Round 1 against the Irish after suffering an MCL sprain in his knee. Look for Tiger defensive coordinator Brent Venables to feature Davis and use exotic pressures up the middle.


Field cornerback has been a weakness for Notre Dame’s defense at times this season. Junior TaRiq Bracy and true freshman Clarence Lewis alternated at the position that defends the wide side of the field. Then Lewis leaped Bracy as the starter after the latter struggled last month. Lewis will need to step up, or the Irish will need to provide him some safety help. Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (29-of-44 passing for 439 yards and two touchdowns) and wide receivers Cornell Powell (six catches for 161 yards and a score) and Amari Rodgers (eight catches for 134 yards) torched the wide side of the field in Round 1.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book led the Irish to an upset of No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7, 2020.
Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell (17) catches a pass for a touchdown as Notre Dame cornerback TaRiq Bracy (28) defends on Nov. 7.
RIGHT: Clemson defensive linemen Tyler Davis (13), Nyles Pinckney (44) and Justin Foster (35) after a tackle against Louisville this season.
Notre Dame grad senior Josh Lugg may be returning to a starting role at right tackle where he finished the last five games of the 2019 season.

At Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.

Kickoff: 4:00 p.m. EST


Series history: Clemson leads 3-2

Betting line: Clemson by 10 1/2