Notre Dame vs. Clemson Complete Game Preview
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The date circled by many on the Notre Dame football calendar finally arrives Saturday night when the No. 6 Irish travel to South Carolina to battle No. 12 Clemson under the lights.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly didn’t simply spew standard coachspeak Tuesday, instead noting the prime-time matchup is one Notre Dame has “been looking forward to certainly all season.”
“Everybody wants to get that opportunity to compete at the highest level, and this will be one of those opportunities,” Kelly said.
Kelly admitted the vibe around the team is different than a typical week.
“You know when your team is, I would say, detailed on the very first meeting,” Kelly said. “They know who they’re playing, and they know what they need to do and how they need to play if they want to win.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney joked that he’s received phone calls from people he hasn’t spoken with in 20 years looking for tickets.
“They need to keep a level head,” Swinney told reporters regarding his team. “But they’re all excited. When you’re a competitor, how many people get to compete on a national stage?”
Date: Saturday, October 3
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Place: Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina
Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Channel 129
Spread: Even, according to Odds Shark
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
Control the Line of Scrimmage
Asked to compare this year’s offense to units he’s had in years past at Notre Dame, Kelly pointed to the team’s offensive line.
“What we’re doing more this year is controlling the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said. “I think that that’s probably one thing that is separating this team from our other offenses is that we are able to run the football and control the line of scrimmage.”
Top running back C.J. Prosise has racked up 600 rushing yards this season, the most by any Irish player in a season’s first four games. After running for 149 yards against UMass on Saturday in just more than one half of work, Prosise quickly credited his offensive line for doing “an amazing job.”
“There’s times when I’m getting 10 yards before I even get touched by anybody,” Prosise said.
That being said, Notre Dame will face a different caliber defense when it squares off against the Tigers in Memorial Stadium.
“This is as good an offensive line as we’ve seen in a long time,” Swinney said.
Limit the Explosive Plays
At a quick glance, the 450 yards Notre Dame allowed to UMass are cause for concern. Consider, however, the 83-yard touchdown run and the 56-yard pass in the second quarter, and the Irish defensive performance is more palatable.
Notre Dame can point to gadget plays all it wants, but until the Irish find answers for explosive plays—whether they originate from trickery or not—there will be defensive doubts, especially at the back end of the defense.
“I would continue to run them,” Kelly said, specifically, of the trick plays. “I certainly think our defensive coaches are well-aware of that eventuality, and we've had a conversation about it. We'll have to continue to certainly pick up our keys and be more aware of them.”
Clemson sophomore running back Wayne Gallman rushed for 139 yards on 24 carries against Louisville two weeks ago, and sophomore wide receiver Artavis Scott has hauled in 20 receptions through three games.
Clemson Keys to Victory
Slow C.J. Prosise
Through four games, opposing defenses haven’t yet drummed up answers to defending Irish running back C.J. Prosise.
Prosise has helped spearhead the Irish offense with a mix of explosive plays and solid gains to move the sticks. As a team, Notre Dame has tallied seven touchdowns of at least 50 yards—already the most for an entire season in Kelly’s six-year tenure in South Bend. Asked about those lengthy plays, Kelly praised Prosise for his “breakaway speed” and “another gear that he can kick into.”
It helps when a back can run behind an offensive line like Notre Dame’s. Per ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna, Prosise has gone at least five yards past the line of scrimmage without being touched on 24 of his 74 carries (32.4 percent), the highest percentage of any Power Five running back.
It sounds simple, but Clemson linebackers B.J. Goodson (team-leading 21 tackles) and Ben Boulware will need to wrap up Notre Dame’s 220-pound running back.
“I refuse to go down,” Prosise said after the win Saturday. “I’m not going to let one guy tackle me. [Running backs] coach [Autry] Denson has this thing called ‘Get 22.’ Make every guy on the field tackle you twice. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Feed Skill Players
While the Tigers are without standout wide receiver Mike Williams—who posted 57 grabs for 1,030 yards and six touchdowns last season but suffered a slightly fractured neck in the 2015 season opener versus Wofford—they still have a strong offensive nucleus to challenge an Irish defense that’s revealed holes through one-third of the regular season.
Scott is the team’s top wide receiver with 20 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns in three games. As a freshman last year, the Clearwater, Florida, product paced the team with 76 catches and eight receiving touchdowns.
Gallman is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and coming off his most productive outing of the season. Fifth-year wideout Charone Peake, who has risen on the depth chart with Williams’ injury, has a pair of scores on seven catches (15.7 yards per reception).
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Irish redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer is making his third career start Saturday, but he’s heading into an environment unlike any in which he’s ever played.
Few have, of course, as Kelly said Notre Dame is preparing like Saturday night at Memorial Stadium will be “the loudest environment that we’ve ever played in.”
In three weeks, Kizer has faced his share of challenges. He handled the fourth-quarter comeback on the road in an emergency against Virginia, then toppled a then-Top-15 opponent in Georgia Tech at home.
Saturday, though, is the decisive moment.
“He has a presence about him, a command presence that, when he goes out there with the other 10 players, you don't feel like you're putting a freshman quarterback out there,” Kelly said. “You don't sense that or feel that.”
Kizer’s footwork and accuracy have been imperfect, but Kelly has been pleased with his new starting quarterback overall. Kizer has thrown just a pair of interceptions in his two-plus games this season.
“They just keep coming up with quarterbacks,” Swinney said. “It's unbelievable these guys they've got playing quarterback. The Kizer kid has stepped in and done a tremendous job. They haven't missed a beat.”
Will that remain the case Saturday?
Notre Dame junior safety Max Redfield is a repeat visitor to this space, though the reasoning is somewhat different this week.
Kelly again stood before the media Tuesday and said Redfield will start against the Tigers on Saturday. Then again, Kelly said the same thing the Thursday before the UMass game. Redfield did eventually play against the Minutemen, but fifth-year captain Matthias Farley started and logged plenty of snaps until Redfield came on to fit into some zone looks defensively.
Kelly has said that Redfield is getting increasingly comfortable playing and tackling with the massive cast protecting his broken thumb. Do the coaches trust him enough against a Clemson offense that boasts high-end playmakers?
“I think he’s coming along,” Kelly said. “He’s getting to where we need him to be—getting better and better.”
Redfield has the elite athleticism to match up well with Clemson’s skill position players, as well as quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Clemson Players to Watch
In a matchup of same-name quarterbacks, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson presents an array of challenges for the Irish. In three games, the second-year signal-caller has completed 74.4 percent of his passes for 641 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions, albeit against Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville.
Still, as evidenced by Watson’s work in 2014 (14 touchdowns to just two interceptions and a 68 percent completion rate in eight games, including five starts) before a knee injury ended his true freshman season, Clemson has a talented quarterback.
Kelly described Watson as multidimensional, athletic and a capable thrower surrounded by solid playmakers.
“The quarterback obviously is the big threat here,” Kelly said. “He's a game wrecker. We'll have to do a much better job than we did this past weekend.”
Watson does possess big-game experience. Barely a month into his freshman campaign last year, Watson came off the bench against then-No. 1 Florida State in Tallahassee. The rookie completed 19 of 28 passes for 266 yards and a rushing touchdown in the near-upset and eventual overtime loss.
Tigers junior defensive end Shaq Lawson has piled up five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks through three games and presents an edge threat for the Irish offensive line.
Kelly highlighted Lawson among an “athletic front four” and said he’s really impressed with the Central, South Carolina, native.
“We are going to show everyone in the world what we’re made of and make people see what we are made of,” Lawson said of the matchup with Notre Dame, per Rachel Eagleton of Clemson’s website.
Lawson and fellow linemen Kevin Dodd, Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano will be tasked with generating a pass rush against Kizer. Notre Dame’s quarterbacks have not been pressured much this season against Texas, Virginia, Georgia Tech and UMass.
Can Lawson and company get to Kizer and force the youngster into mistakes on the road?
What They're Saying
“I know this. It's a close team. They'll play hard for each other. There's no quit in them. They'll overcome adversity. I think they'll go on the road, and they'll battle for four quarters.” — Irish head coach Brian Kelly on what he knows about his team at this stage
“I thought our kids handled that very well. Didn't have a lot of communication errors on the field. Just didn't make a play or two maybe at the end that we needed to.” — Kelly on how Notre Dame handled a similar road environment against Florida State last season
“I've had more conversations with possibly utilizing him in a smaller role in certain situations that we can utilize his skill set.” — Kelly on freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who debuted last Saturday
“There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well. But I think that it's his presence that allows the other 10 players to have a great deal of confidence that they can go out and be successful.” — Kelly on quarterback DeShone Kizer
“He's an outstanding corner. He reminds me a lot of Florida State's and LSU's corners, very athletic.” — Kelly on Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander
“If you play well, you tend to quiet crowds down.” — Kelly on playing at Clemson
“If he’s not cleared [Wednesday], it’s unrealistic that he would have a role on Saturday.” — Kelly on tight end Tyler Luatua (concussion)
“It will be a loud environment on the practice field, and we'll be working nonverbal cadence as if it were the loudest environment that we've ever played in.” — Kelly on preparing for Saturday’s environment at Memorial Stadium
“I would be surprised if the moment was too big for him.” — Kelly on Kizer
“I do think it's a little unfair that they brought the Pope into town just in time for the Clemson game. I think that's kind of a low blow.” — Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
“They're Notre Dame. Are you kidding me? This is the winningest program in the history of college football.” — Swinney when asked if he’s excited to coach against Notre Dame and what’s so special about the Irish program
“I hope they don’t bring Joe Montana with them. I can tell you that.” — Swinney
Clemson WR Charone Peake on Notre Dame: "I respect those guys, but we're going out to get a win. We're not taking a backseat to anybody."— Aaron Brenner (@Aaron_Brenner) September 29, 2015
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson: "I think I've been playing pretty good." Said his highest coach's game grade so far in 2015 was at Louisville.— Aaron Brenner (@Aaron_Brenner) September 28, 2015
Jayron Kearse.. "If you're not ready to play this game then I don't know why you're playing college football"— David Hood (@MDavidHood) September 28, 2015
Even the betting odds peg this one as, effectively, a tossup. Notre Dame has faced stiffer competition through four games, but Clemson benefits from an assuredly raucous home environment.
While it may be difficult to see a redshirt freshman quarterback with just two full games of legitimate experience traveling into Memorial Stadium in prime time and leading his team to a victory, Kizer won’t need to do it alone. Notre Dame’s leadership has been a hallmark since before the regular season began. Plus, Kizer has impressed Kelly, teammates and opposing coaches alike with his poise.
With Prosise and star wide receiver Will Fuller producing around a stalwart offensive line, Notre Dame’s offense should be able to crack Clemson’s defense.
But how will the Irish defense fare?
There have been plenty of warning signs. But Notre Dame and its defensive leaders rose up to stymie Georgia Tech’s triple option.
Expect the defense to do enough Saturday night in a close one.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Clemson 27
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is the lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.