By nearly every metric, Brian Kelly has done a resplendent job resuscitating the Notre Dame football program. In his 11 seasons, he has won 72% of his games, reached one BCS title game and registered one College Football Playoff appearance.
Perhaps most impressive, Kelly has built Notre Dame to the point where it’s a forgone conclusion the Irish will be nationally ranked, competitive and relevant. After taking over amid a din of questions about whether Notre Dame could uphold its independent status or deserved a spot in college football’s postseason, Kelly has guided Notre Dame to consistent relevance.
The one nag on his résumé would be the lack of an iconic win, the kind that inspires T-shirts and documentaries, adding lore to a program steeped with it. Notre Dame has a chance at one of those victories on Saturday, with No. 1 Clemson coming to South Bend, Indiana, without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
The game is ripe with opportunity for No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0), which can state its playoff case before, perhaps, needing to make the same claim in December at the ACC title game in Charlotte.
Is this edition of Notre Dame good enough to awaken the ghosts of Irish past? Yahoo Sports spoke to eight coaches and assistants who’ve played or studied Notre Dame this year for their thoughts. (We went Notre Dame heavy because we dialed into Clemson before the Miami game.)
Here are the six keys to Notre Dame pulling off the upset, according to those who’ve played the Irish.
Clemson-Notre Dame: Exploit the matchups
One coach brought up a fascinating point: These teams have reached this top-five level in two completely different ways. Both programs are nearly a decade into building to a specific identity, but a very different one.
Notre Dame’s is simple. “They are big, physical, have great size and fundamentals,” said an opposing assistant. “They beat you with power and strength.”
Clemson is contrasting. “They have dynamic athletes at every position and they are fast. It’s going to be which style works on that given day is going to determine the outcome.”
For the Irish, the offensive strengths are obvious. While their offensive line doesn’t have top-10 maulers like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson in 2017, one assistant coach who studied them that season said this offensive line may be better as a whole unit.
Left tackle Liam Eichenberg is the group’s star, but what impressed the coaches more was “the cohesiveness of it all.” Another coach pointed out that Notre Dame’s line can lean on teams over games and eventually exploit its physical superiority.
Will that be the case against Clemson? While Lawrence’s absence gobbles up the oxygen, Clemson will also be without its best linebacker (James Skalski), best defensive tackle (Tyler Davis) and another starting linebacker (Mike Jones Jr.) because of injury.
That will leave Clemson DC Brent Venables’ unit playing a slew of young players and could be vulnerable. Can Notre Dame’s line lean on those young players and execute soul-crushing drives like the 15-play, 81-yard march to open the Georgia Tech game? Notre Dame isn’t going to win a shootout, so ball control will be key.
Keep it simple for Notre Dame QB Ian Book
Notre Dame senior quarterback Ian Book is a very good college quarterback who lacks some of the high-end dynamism that we’ve seen in recent elite teams. If Notre Dame’s offensive line can exploit Clemson’s young defensive front, it not only allows Book to avoid having to throw downfield, but it also creates passing lanes necessary for a quarterback of his modest stature (6 foot).
“My critique of Ian Book is that he won’t consistently make the throws,” said an opposing assistant. “If they had an elite, elite quarterback, they’d be special this season. He has a way of being uneasy in the pocket and taking off. That fits into Clemson’s hands and defensive speed, which gives them opportunity to create negative plays and get them off schedule.”
The coach added something sure to live long in Notre Dame message board lore, invoking the name of BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who transferred from Notre Dame this offseason. “I always pick games off quarterback,” he said. “If Jurkovec was still the quarterback at Notre Dame, they’d be a legit contender.”
Book has seven touchdown passes this season and 1,225 yards, just one interception and is always a threat with his legs. Jurkovec has blossomed into a high-end ACC starting quarterback at BC, as he’s thrown 14 touchdowns and 1,875 yards.
Notre Dame will rely on its dynamic tailbacks, sophomore Kyren Williams and freshman Chris Tyree. One opposing defensive coach said Williams is a high-end ACC tailback, just a notch below Etienne (that’s quite a compliment). “He plays with such an edge, but you see him, he’s a little kid,” said a coach. “He plays with a really good energy.”
Book’s job will be to feed the backs, use the tight ends (see below) and ride the offensive line to wait for the moment to exploit Clemson downfield. His ability to capitalize on those moments could swing the game.
Notre Dame’s tight end talent
Notre Dame’s distinct weakness on offense is a lack of big-play pop at the wide receiver position. The loss of Kevin Austin, the team’s biggest big-play threat, has meant a renewed focus on the tight ends. “There’s about 20 to 25 high-end tight ends in the country,” said an opposing assistant, “and they have four of them.”
First-year coordinator Tommy Rees’ early hallmark as a play caller is that he’s patient in setting up the pass with the run. Notre Dame’s ability to avoid negative plays forces opponents to “truly honor the run.”
The two tight ends that impressed opposing coaches the most were junior Tommy Tremble and freshman Michael Mayer. Tremble, who is 6-foot-4, 248 pounds, is a violent blocker. “His physicality in the run game and his skill as a pass catcher is pretty unique,” said an opposing defensive coach. “He’s one of the better dual-threat type tight ends you’ll see.”
Mayer, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound freshman, is more of a prototype and may have the highest ceiling. “I think he’s got a legitimate future,” said the defensive coach. “You can see them trying to find him with the football and create some opportunities for him. He’s got major upside and could be a special player, the next really good tight end at Notre Dame.”
With little ability to stretch the field with Book’s limitations and a lack of high-end receivers, Notre Dame’s tight ends will need to be productive for the Irish to win both in the run and pass game.
Where Clemson may be vulnerable
Notre Dame’s defensive front, led by Daelin Hayes, will have to be the key to victory on that side of the ball. If there’s a glaring weakness at Clemson that Notre Dame is capable of exploiting, it’s the interior of the offensive line – guards Will Putnam and Matt Bockhorst and center Cade Stewart.
One coach summed it up this way: “The interior of the offensive line is more ACC-ish than one of the top-five rosters in the country.”
Clemson left tackle Jackson Carman is elite, as the same coach said that he’s a top-15 or top-20 NFL draft pick. (That could mean an intriguing matchup with Hayes, the Irish’s talented end.)
Notre Dame’s ability to disrupt up the middle, rattle freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and slow Travis Etienne is going to determine the tenor of the game.
That’s going to help Notre Dame’s secondary, as the less time that Uiagalelei has, the better off the Irish are. One coach pointed to junior corner TaRiq Bracy as a player they’d expect Clemson to attempt to exploit on the outside.
Will Uiagalelei have the time and clean pocket to take advantage?
Stop Clemson’s Travis Etienne
The most dynamic offensive player on the field Saturday will be Clemson tailback Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher and general menace.
He’s coming off an astounding performance against Boston College in which he accounted for 264 yards – 84 rushing, 140 receiving and 40 on a kick return. The receiving part is especially vexing, as he caught seven balls on Saturday as a safety outlet for Uiagalelei.
How do you slow him down in the pass game?
“You gotta keep mixing up mans and zones,” said a coach who has studied Clemson. “When you have a player like that, it’s all about matchups. If they know you are in man, they know there’s no one who can win that matchup without extra help. You can’t give him one coverage the whole time. It’s just a bat signal, ‘We’re in man. This is who is covering him.’”
One of the ways to better cover Etienne is by flooding the field with defensive backs on third down, perhaps playing as many as six. That, of course, could be an invitation for Clemson to exploit a light box by handing the ball to Etienne.
“You have a lot of decisions you have to make,” the coach said. “If it’s not part of your package where you can switch coverages within a micro second, it’s very tough.”
Against Boston College last week, Clemson was limited at receiver with an ab strain to Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. was out. Both starters are expected to play Saturday, with Dabo Swinney hopeful that Ngata will be able to contribute more. If both return healthy, that complicates things for Notre Dame and makes Etienne more dangerous.
Notre Dame’s defensive strength
This is not a Notre Dame team stocked with first-round draft picks, and certainly not on defense. The coaches who’ve played Notre Dame are impressed with a group of solid players who tackle well and never miss a run fit. The defense fits the personality of promising young coordinator Clark Lea – consistent, steady and not particularly flashy.
The exception is linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who coaches spoke about in a rare tone of reverence. Owusu-Koramoah leads Notre Dame with 6.0 TFLs, ranks second behind promising young safety Kyle Hamilton with 26 tackles and is a general sideline-to-sideline disruptor.
Said one head coach: “He’s a special player. There’s not a lot of guys who jump off the film like him. He’s one of the best defensive players, if not the best defensive player, we’ve played this year. He has unbelievable range sideline to sideline and plays physical. He’s a matchup problem.”
Said another: “No. 6 is as good of a football player as I’ve seen in a while. He’s the real deal. He can shut down the whole field-side pass game and the field-side run game. There’s not a lot of options to run to or throw to the field. If you can be dominant out there on the perimeter to the field, you have a chance to be really good.”
Owusu-Koramoah is the bell cow for a defense that’s defined by being sound, not overwhelming. “They easily have one of the top five defenses in the country. They don’t have a lot of weaknesses.”
Clemson-Notre Dame: Who will win?
Let’s not forget that Clemson struggled against Syracuse with Lawrence at quarterback two weeks ago, as Syracuse had the ball with a chance to take the lead in the third quarter. Without Lawrence, they got down 18 to Boston College in the first half last week.
Look for Notre Dame to out-slug Clemson, 24-20, and leave us giddy for the rematch.
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