Or does it need to stay creative and continue to find different ways to give the ball to Travis Etienne?
The Tigers rank just 11th in the ACC at running the football, just 166.5 yards per game, which is down from last year’s 240.4 yards per game average which ranked second in the ACC. This year, Clemson has rushed for more than 200 yards just once all season, and that was when it ran for 258 yards against Miami on Oct. 10.
Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC) is averaging just 4.5 yards per carry, which might not bode well on Saturday when the top-ranked Tigers take on No. 4 Notre Dame in South Bend. The Irish have the ACC’s second-best run defense, allowing just 93.7 yards per game on the ground and just 3.1 yards per carry.
“These guys are as good as you are going to see,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They are unbelievable, talented guys up front. The backers are fast, physical, and smart. They have one of the best safeties you are going to see in (Kyle Hamilton).”
Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) will likely follow the same path everyone has this season when it comes to defending the Tigers. It will perhaps load up the box and dare Clemson to throw the football, especially with Trevor Lawrence not playing.
Lawrence is out due to COVID-19 protocols after testing positive for the virus last week.
The Irish’s game plan should be simple, make freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and the Tigers’ corps of receivers beat them instead of two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne.
There is one issue, though. Clemson is answering those loading the box, by throwing the football to their All-American running back.
Though Etienne has rushed for 606 yards and scored nine rushing touchdowns, he is leading the country in yards from scrimmage by adding 434 receiving yards and two more touchdowns. In last week’s win over Boston College, Etienne caught seven passes for 140 yards and scored on a 35-yard screen. That opened up the running game in the second half as Etienne rushed for the majority of his 84 yards after halftime.
He also had a 40-yard kickoff return against BC, and earlier this year he had a 44-yard punt return.
“You have to play him every snap,” Swinney said. “People have tried to take him out of the game just by the nature of how they have played us with unblocked defenders and things like that. So, we are not allowing people to do that.”
What will Notre Dame do? The Irish clearly have the best defense Clemson has seen to this point, as they rank fifth nationally in scoring defense (10.3 points/game) and are eighth in total defense (267.2 yards allowed/game).
Odds are, they will probably do what they can to slow down Etienne. But that is not as easy as it sounds.
“I think he’s the best running back in the country. I’ll go on record on saying that. Elite speed. Tough inside-out runner and incredible out of the backfield,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s the complete package. When you’re looking up complete running back in the dictionary, his picture and name should be there. That’s who he is.
“I don’t know if there’s a back we’ve gone against, and we’ve gone against some great backs, that is complete of a player that he is.”
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