CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – The No. 1 Clemson Tigers will once again turn to freshman D.J. Uiagalelei this week as they travel to South Bend to take on the No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The Tigers didn’t shy away from letting their freshman quarterback air it out last week against Boston College. Uiagalelei completed 30 of 41 pass attempts for 342 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 34-28 come from behind win. Though the game circumstances dictated it, Uiagalelei’s poise as he was relied upon was a great sign for the Tigers. And they may need him to come up big again this week against the Irish, as they present a formidable run defense.
Senior Travis Etienne saw a ton of action in the win as well. In fact, he saw more touches last week than in any other game this season. Etienne rushed 20 times for 84 yards and a score, but was most effective as a receiver, catching seven passes for 140 yards a score as well. Etienne will likely need to have a similar outing against Notre Dame, but history has shown he can deliver in almost any circumstance. Receiver Cornell Powell had, by far, his biggest game of the season, catching eleven passes for over one hundred yards. And Amari Rodgers was once again a reliable outlet, hauling in seven passes for 66 yards and an important third-quarter touchdown.
They’re third-down production dipped slightly from their 50% average on the season, so that will need to improve against a stingy Notre Dame defense. And they’ll likely need to establish better time of possession to keep the Irish off the field. And while they only lost one fumble last week, they put three on the ground. That’ll need to be cleaned up if they want to win this weekend. Conversely, Clemson was unable to force a turnover for the first time since week one.
That being said, the defense remains one of the best in college football. They held BC to a dismal two yards per carry on the ground, and allowed just 275 total yards of offense. They’ve played a couple very capable offense this season, but nothing like what they’ll see Saturday night in South Bend. This will be a true test of where the Tigers defense stands among the top teams in the nation.
The No. 4 Fighting Irish bring an unblemished record into Saturday’s contest as they welcome also undefeated Clemson to South Bend. Keep in mind the Irish have played one fewer game as they are 6-0.
Notre Dame’s offensive production this year has been roughly the opposite of the Tigers. While Clemson presents a top-ten passing offense in terms of yards, and a run game that ranks 60th, the Irish are a stark contrast. Notre Dame averages 231 yards rushing per game, which ranks 12th in the FBS, but they average 206 yards passing per contest, 78th in college football.
It all starts with senior quarterback Ian Book (#12). Book is a very efficient quarterback and has been throughout his college career. This season he’s completing 61% of his passes with seven touchdowns to just one interception. His numbers aren’t gaudy, but they haven’t had to be. Book has run the offense well, and they’re scoring nearly 35 points per game. He’s a valuable asset in the ground game, too. He has five rushing touchdowns so far this season, a career high.
As a unit they’ve been solid in situational football, converting 54% of their third down attempts (9th in the FBS). And they’ve been routinely efficient from drive to drive, steadily “matriculating the ball down the field” as the late Hank Stram, former Chiefs head coach, used to say. Averaging 34 minutes in time of possession, Notre Dame ranks tenth in all of college football. That will be a big area of focus for the Clemson defense this week. They’ll need to find a way to avoid long drives by the Irish. Kyren Williams (#23) is the clear-cut feature back in this offense. The sophomore has an even 600 yards on the ground this season at 5.7 yards per carry, and has added seven touchdowns. He’s been the workhorse while C’Bo Flemister and Chris Tyree spell time relatively equally. Of course Book gets his share of carries as well, whether they’re designed or ad-lib plays. They’ve had quite a bit of balance in the receiving corps as several weapons have been involved in the offense. But senior Javon McKinley (#88) has been the top target as he leads the team with 264 yards, but no scores.
On defense, Notre Dame has been excellent against both the run and the pass. They allow just over 206 yards passing, and 93 yards rushing per game. Both rank inside the top ten. Senior defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji (#91) sticks out on the defensive line up front. An NFL prospect, the senior has been important in the team’s efforts against the run and in their pass rush. He’s second on the team with three sacks, and is athletic enough to run down mobile quarterbacks on the perimeter.
Edge Daelin Hayes (#9) has elevated his production in 2020, and is another NFL prospect on this Irish defense. Hayes, a senior, plays on the line the majority of the time, but can assume linebacker responsibilities as well, hence the edge designation. He has sideline-to-sideline speed, and has shown great coverage skills this season. He’s perfect for the Notre Dame 3-4 scheme, and can turn it on at any point. The Tigers will need to keep an eye on where Hayes is at all times.
The big knock on the defense so far, despite being a top-ten unit, is their lack of turnovers. While they have a +3 turnover margin, that’s more due to their lack of giveaways than their number of takeaways. They’ve forced just seven all year. And while they’ve been great at shutting down opposing offenses so far, they’ll likely be getting their biggest test this weekend even if it’s against a freshman QB in Uiagalelei.
A battle of two great defenses should be fun to watch. Clemson has been excellent in shutting down the run, and they’ve been able to get off the field on third down. If they can continue that success on Saturday, they’re likely to come away with a win. But Notre Dame has been excellent in the run game, and aren’t likely to turn to the pass right away. The Tigers will need to be consistent throughout the first half in hopes of forcing the Irish’s hand.
If the Irish have to rely on their passing game to win, Clemson will be in a great position. That being said, the Tigers offense needs to do its part in applying that pressure. Travis Etienne will again be counted on heavily to keep the Clemson offense running efficiently, but against a great Notre Dame front, Uiagalelei will have to make some plays. Amari Rodgers will need to get some separation early and often to make things easier on the freshman.
This game could come down to turnovers, as both offenses may struggle to put together consistent scoring drives. That, however, favors Clemson as they’ve forced 13 turnovers so far. It should be a close game in South Bend.