Clemson's defensive keys vs. Notre Dame
When it comes to Notre Dame football this season, many point toward its defense when it comes to talking of the strength of its team. Although the Irish are known for their defense, Notre Dame’s 26th ranked offense in S&P+ is no weak group.
The only team Clemson has faced ranked higher in S&P+ this season is Texas A&M (19th), who the Tigers struggled to beat earlier this season. Other than Texas A&M, the Clemson defense has only two other top 50 offensive S&P+ ranked teams in South Carolina (29th) and Syracuse(44th). Both games were two of Clemson’s closest while the Tigers hung on to beat Syracuse by four points, they gave up a total of 510 yards through the air against South Carolina.
The Notre Dame offense has been able to produce throughout the season, handing losses to teams with solid S&P+ defensive rankings such as Michigan (5th), Northwestern (32), USC (40) and Florida State (41).
The Fighting Irish (12-0) have been far more dangerous this season since quarterback Ian Book was named starter and the Clemson defense is in for a real test when they face Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl in a couple of weeks. Here are some keys for the Clemson defense heading into the College Football Playoff Semifinal game.
Play like the No.1 rush defense in the country
The first key for the Tigers is to continue to do what they have all year, shut down the run game. The Clemson defense is ranked No.1 overall in the country in S&P+, but also ranks No.1 in rush defense S&P+ as well.
Statistically, the Tigers have been unreal against the run. Clemson is one of just four teams in the country allowing under 100 yards a game and are first in the NCAA in yards per attempt, allowing just 2.4 yards. While Notre Dame’s rushing offense is ranked 18th in rushing S&P+, starting running back Dexter Williams will have no chance against this Clemson defense if they’re playing at their best.
According to NCAA.com, they have Notre Dame ranked 49th overall in rush offense. They rank 50th in the country in rushing yards with 2,286, 57th in the country in yards per attempt and 32nd in rushing touchdowns with 27.
Notre Dame may be ranked rather high in S&P+ in the run game, but the team statistics aren’t exactly impressive. It is Dexter Williams on the other hand who has been the impressive part of the Fighting Irish’s run game.
After missing the first four games of the season due to a suspension, Williams still ran for 941 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. Shutting down Williams and putting the game in first-year starting quarterback Ian Book’s hands can put a lot of pressure on the Notre Dame offense.
Protect the middle of the field
If there is one spot the Clemson defense has continually been exposed, it is the middle of the field. It has become apparent towards the end of the season that the Tigers’ safeties and linebackers have had a really tough time covering the middle of the field, both in the pass and the run. These problems have been shown very closely in the Tigers’ last two appearances.
In Clemson’s game against South Carolina, the defense gave up an absurd 510 yards to quarterback Jake Bentley and allowed him to throw for five touchdowns. Deebo Samuel had 10 receptions for 210 yards and three touchdowns.
A majority of these yards came in the middle of the field with multiple noticeable blown coverages at safety and in the linebacking corp.
In Clemson’s ACC championship victory over Pittsburgh, the Tigers may have won the game, 42-10, but the game was not as pretty as the score showed.
Clemson’s defense allowed 191 yards on the ground to Pitt and multiple big plays on the ground came in between the tackles. Power back Qadree Ollison was able to power his way through the defensive line for some big runs and Darrin Hall was able to run for 81 yards, averaging 6.1 yards a carry on the day.
If it weren’t for the lack of passing options Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett brought to the table in the rain, this game could have looked a lot closer on the scoreboard.
Notre Dame’s Book has been incredibly consistent with his passing this season with a completion percentage of 70.4. Book makes his throws count and if he sees that opening in the middle of the field that the Tigers’ have been prone to expose, he will certainly take advantage. Standing at 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, Clemson is likely to see Williams running between the tackles. Defending the middle of the field should be Clemson’s top defensive priority.
Show up in the red zone
Holding the Notre Dame offense to field goals when in the red zone would certainly give the Tigers a heavy advantage against the Fighting Irish. Doing so starts upfront with the defensive line.
As a defense, Clemson (13-0) is one of the most talented red zone defenses in the country. The Tigers ranked 11th in defensive red zone stop percentage 74.2 percent and have allowed just 14 touchdowns in the red zone this season. Their nine allowed field goals in the red zone has been quite impressive and is 39 percent of opposing teams conversions in the red zone against the Tigers this season.
Notre Dame may not play against a more talented defensive line for many years and they have seen no group near as talented this season so far. ACC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American Clelin Ferrell has 10.5 sacks on the year and his presence on the edge will be a major key for the Clemson defense coming off of Book’s blind side. Along with Ferrell’s presence on the edge, the interior force of unanimous All-American defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (13.5 TFL) and All-American defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (7.5 TFL) will demand three men to block. Austin Bryant and Xavier Thomas (20 TFL) combined will be creating even more pressure on the other side opposite Ferrell.
With such a talented front seven, Notre Dames’ slightly above average red zone offense could possibly be exploited heavily.
Notre Dame is ranked 47th in the country in red zone percentage, converting 86 percent of the time it enters the red zone. In 51 red zone opportunities, the team failed to capitalized on seven chances. With 12 of their conversions resulting in field goals, 27 percent of conversions in the red zone.
Notre Dame isn’t a bad team in the red zone, but they’re definitely not a top red zone offense. Clemson should take advantage of their red zone presence.