Chat transcript: What's the formula for Notre Dame to upset Clemson?

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino spent a few hours answering reader questions, as he does each Tuesday starting at 11 a.m. A lightly edited transcript follows:

Cheryl from Texas: Do you think ND can run the ball against Clemson?

Mike Berardino: Hi Cheryl, that is the big question, isn't it? Notre Dame's rushing offense has proved dominant at times, but still ranks just 56th nationally at 4.38 yards per carry. Clemson's run defense is 11th in the country with 2.98 yards per carry allowed. The Tigers have allowed just five rushing touchdowns all season. That's the bad news for Irish fans. The good news? Four of those rushing scores have come in Clemson's last four games, including two go-ahead scores for Florida State in the first half. The Seminoles' O-line, including ND transfer Dillan Gibbons, and its ground game opened a lot of eyes with its performance against Clemson that day (34 carries, 206 rushing yards, 6.1-yard average).   So, yes, I'd say there is hope for Notre Dame in that all-important area.

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Sean Greensboro ,NC: I am an elite wide receiver. Why should I go to Notre Dame? You hardly throw to the wideouts, and when you do, the QB can’t hit the broad side of a barn.(I,e. it’s half stats against Syracuse). Convince me I am wrong.

Mike Berardino: Greensboro Sean, thanks for checking in. This makes me think back to an answer Marcus Freeman gave on Oct. 24 when he was asked about the current lack of production from the WR room and how it might impact recruiting:

"If I'm a recruit, I'm saying, shoot, I want to go there. Let me go try to fight and see if I can get on the field and try to earn some confidence from the coaching staff. That's the reality. You have to tailor what you're doing around your players. I've never believed in having a system or a package that you put pieces into. You get the best recruits, the best football players you can get within maybe the framework, within our philosophy defensively or offensively. You get the best possible players you can and then you have to tailor what you're doing around those players." So far that message seems to be resonating with Braylon James, Jaden Greathouse and Rico Flores. All three are 4-star WR commitments who remain part of Notre Dame's third-ranked recruiting class for this cycle.

As for the QB piece, we have no way of knowing how Tyler Buchner will progress between now and spring practice. Same goes for Pyne and Steve Angeli. There's also this thing called the transfer portal. That certainly can change the calculus in a hurry.

ND Fan: Any comments on the spread for the Clemson game? What does Vegas see that I don't?

Mike Berardino: No doubt the recent round-robin with Clemson, Syracuse and Notre Dame plays into this. If Clemson struggled with the Orange at home and ND handled the Orange on the road, why should we be surprised at a modest line of ND getting 4.5 to 5 points as a home 'dog against the Tigers? Clemson is 3-1 away from home this year against the spread, but ND is 2-0 ATS as an underdog (at Ohio State and at UNC) and 2-0 ATS when favored by 13 points or less (-4 vs. BYU, -1 at SU). If any team has played to the level of its competition in this oddball year, it seems to be the Irish.

Sean, Portland, Ore: 1) Will the ND crowd be able to create any sort of home-field advantage? 2) Do you think Brandyn Hillman will commit to ND, and will Freeman be able to keep this recruiting class together? (Particularly Peyton Bowen/Skill position players)

Mike Berardino: Portland Sean, thanks for the question. We already touched a bit on part 3 of your question, but Bowen seems like a decision that will come down to the wire. I don't have an opinion on part 2. And as for home-field advantage, lowly Stanford ended Notre Dame's winning streak in night home games, but the Irish did upset Clemson two years ago before a Covid-restricted home "crowd" of 11,011. If there's a dial that goes beyond 11 for the PA volume at Notre Dame Stadium, this would be the game to use it.

Tiger#84: The forecast for Saturday is a 60% chance of rain.  Do you think this will help or hurt ND's chances?

Mike Berardino: Hello chatter, I have no stats to back this up, but my general sense has always been that inclement weather typically favors the underdog. Maybe that was more the case when mud games could result, but even on fake grass a slippery football is a pretty effective randomizer.

Ryan in Mars, Pa.: What do you think about Brandon Joseph interception return for touchdown and Mayer breaking the record for tight ends go Irish on Saturday keys to beat Clemson?

Mike Berardino: Mars Man, what's up? I was so impressed by Joseph's game-opening pick-six at Syracuse, I focused pretty much my entire game analysis column on it. If not for an offsides penalty, Joseph would have had a two-pick game for the third time in his college career. As for Mayer, he does remain tied with Ken MacAfee (1977 national champion) for most career TD grabs by a Notre Dame tight end. It's interesting to note that since Drew Pyne called Mayer "kind of uncoverable" after his 11-catch destruction of BYU in Vegas, the rate of production for Notre Dame's best player has slowed. Is that due to tighter coverage schemes? A jumpier Pyne? Probably a combination of several factors, but through his first five games Mayer hauled in 70% of the passes thrown his way (33 of 47) and scored five touchdowns. Starting with the Stanford loss, Mayer's catch rate has dropped to 52% of his targets (14 of 27) with just one TD. He was targeted 9.4 times on average through the first five games and 9.0 times over the past three.

Mayer also has his only three drops of the season during this recent three-game stretch (two against UNLV, including at diving TD catch that was overturned by replay review). Over his previous 17 games, dating to Week 2 of 2021, Mayer dropped exactly one pass: in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. A return to "uncoverable" status would be a huge part of any winning formula against Clemson. Last thing on that: In two games against the Tigers in 2020, the freshman version of Mayer hauled in 5 of 7 targets in both the regular-season win and the blowout loss in the ACC title game. Three of his five drops all year came against Clemson.

Batavia, Ill., Brian: The Rees offense has been plain vanilla, which works well against weaker opponents and defensive lines that can be pushed around. Do you believe this approach will work against big bad Clemson? Rees will need to open up the playbook, and Pyne will need to not focus on his primary receiver. Tyree needs to be used in the slot rather than running back - he goes down too easily on initial contact. Mis-direction, wheel routes, double reverses, jet sweeps, and gimmick  plays need to be interspersed to keep Clemson honest. Thanks for the weekly chats.

Mike Berardino: Batavia Brian, you do recall who was calling plays at Notre Dame when the Irish put 47 on Clemson in November 2020, right? I can't argue, however, with your suggestions about opening up the playbook or Pyne working through his progressions. As for Tyree, while he has become a tougher inside runner this year, he certainly lags Diggs (2.73 average) and Estime (3.38 average) when it comes to yards after contact. Tyree is at 1.99 average yards after contact with just seven missed tackles forced, per Pro Football Focus. Diggs has forced 15 missed tackles and Estime, as you would expect, has forced 22. In terms of usage, it has been odd to see Tyree limited to just seven total snaps in the slot or out wide over the past three games. He was averaging 8.0 snaps as a slot or wide receiver through the first five games, but then came the misalignment penalty that wiped out a Mayer TD grab against Stanford. Something clearly changed after that when it came to how Tyree has been deployed.

Harry from Auburndale Fla: Hi Mike, In your opinion does ND have the chops to defeat a top 5 team that has  its starting QB, starting running back and best defensive lineman for the first time since the Lou Holtz era? It should have been the "Bush Push Game."

Mike Berardino: Hello Harry. It would fit neatly with the narrative of this season spent in Opposite World, wouldn't it?

Jenkins: Do you really believe computer rankings are more important than on field results when ranking teams? If so please turn in your credentials because you are a joke to the industry and sport.

Mike Berardino: Hello, Jenkins. When did I ever say that? By the way, what do you think Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings are taking under consideration if not on-field results? The beauty of computerized number-crunching is that it removes the emotional element and allows for the sort of unexpected outcomes we might get when considering ALL the data points, not just the one result that made you feel a little less miserable for a few hours on a random Saturday afternoon. Hope that helps, Jenkins. Have a nice day.

RustyIrish: Given the lack of QB development under Tommy Rees (and clear QB regression over time) have you heard of any consideration of having him shed his QB Coach role and bring in a new coach to focus on improved QB development? The body of work that Rees has demonstrated is now large and unimpressive, it feels like its time for a change if we are to get to the next level in QB play.

Mike Berardino: Hi Rusty, those are your opinions, but I'm not prepared to join you on any of those blanket statements. I will say it came up again recently — and I wrote as much at — that Freeman and Rees tried to fill an offensive analyst opening right up until the start of the season. Both the HC and the OC remain open to adding another experienced set of eyes to the mix, and with all of Rees' NFL contacts it wouldn't surprise me to see him bring someone in as the QB coach after the season so he can focus more on the big-picture stuff.

Bert from Windermere, Fla.: ND is next to last in red zone defense yet nobody addresses this in questions to MF or in articles or chats. From the goal line to our 20, we do fairly well but then fail. What are your thoughts?

Mike Berardino: Hey Bert, not sure what you're reading as this topic comes up often, especially since DC Al Golden entered preaching red zone efficiency on both sides of the ball, which is how it became such a point of emphasis from Day 1 of spring practice. We'll talk to Golden again after Tuesday's practice, but here's what he said during Syracuse week:

"I’ve got to do a better job making a better call in that situation. Either force field goals or, in the case of the UNLV game, just flat-out stops. I mean, we need a couple stops, and we haven't really gotten a turnover down there.(With) two stops and two turnovers, it's a different animal. It's not like we're giving up 35 points a game. We're doing a good job of keeping guys out of there. We must do a better job when we're in there, no doubt. That starts with me. So, I’ve got to put the guys in a better play call, give them something that they can execute better than they have been. And then we have to take the ball away."

John from Orlando: How many punt blocks did the Irish have under Brian Polian in his two stints as Special Teams coordinator?

Mike Berardino: If you don't mind, in the interest of time and relevance, I restricted this search to Polian's second five-year stint in South Bend (2017-21). Combined blocked kicks/punts for ND in that stretch was 14. That includes a combined four blocked punts in 2019-20, two returned for scores (one by Isaiah Foskey at Pitt. Notre Dame had no blocked punts in 2017 or 2021 under Polian. Notre Dame had zero blocked field goals in 2016-18. The Irish blocked a punt (returned for TD) by Equanimeous St. Brown vs. USC on Oct. 17, 2015 and then went without a single blocked punt for the next 50 games. Bo Bauer ended that drought in the blowout loss at Michigan on Oct. 26, 2019.

Shane from White Deer, Texas: Clemson has been in some close games this year.  What are their weaknesses that you think the Irish can exploit?  Likewise, what are their strengths that will have to be neutralized?  Lastly, will we win this game with the defense or with the offense being superior?  Thanks.

Mike Berardino: There aren't many weaknesses on that Clemson defense, especially up front, but the analytics of suggest the Tigers are vulnerable in pass blocking (53rd nationally in efficiency) and as a receiving corps (67th). If Notre Dame can make Clemson one-dimensional, win the turnover battle and dominate on third down, a low-scoring upset seems possible. I'd say a fourth straight game with a punt block from Brian Mason's group would be part of the recipe as well, but Clemson's special teams are actually ranked first by while ND's are 13th. The Tigers have two punt blocks on the year, while the Irish, of course, have five — two shy of the unofficial program record set in 1932 and again in 1933.

Pat H. Springfield Ill.: What is the plan to limit Will Shipley’s effectiveness?

Mike Berardino: We'll be talking to Al Golden in a few hours, so I'm sure he'll explain all that in great detail for us. Wrapping up would seem to be a good place to start with the shifty Mr. Shipley. He has forced 32 missed tackles on the year, 30 on rushing plays, and his 3.87 yards after contact (as a rusher) account for 476 of his 726 rushing yards (65.6%). Those numbers are very similar to what he did in an injury-marred 2021 (35 MTF, 3.06 YAC, 450 of 740, 60.8%).

Dean from Elkhart: How do you explain Drew Pyne’s regression? He reminds me of Ian Book without the running ability — neither throws a good deep ball, and lately Pyne can’t throw short consistently. It’s become very apparent why he was the backup. Do you think this is as good as it gets for ND at QB this season?

Mike Berardino: Hey Dean, Pyne's actually a better runner than I expected. He's also pretty tough, based on how he's hopped right up after some ferocious hits this season. More free release throws and a running game that sets up the play action vs. Clemson would make him look better.

Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: If Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner were your only choices in a quarterback comparison for Notre Dame, which of these players do you feel can improve the most and provide the Irish with a true impact quarterback going forward? Thank you for answering my question.

Mike Berardino: Hi Alan, too soon to say. Buchner has the pedigree, but Pyne is getting all the experience. That's why a QB battle next offseason, with Angeli and a transfer thrown in, seems the most likely outcome. See you right back here next Tuesday at 11 to discuss the Clemson game in even greater detail!

Follow Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

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