Asked what he feels will decide today’s ACC Championship Game between No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney’s answer was simple.
“Turnovers,” Swinney said during an interview with Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN’s College GameDay show Saturday morning. “I mean, simple as that.”
Clemson committed three turnovers in its first matchup against Notre Dame on Nov. 7 in South Bend, a 47-40 loss in double overtime. One of those turnovers, a fumble by running back Travis Etienne, resulted in a scoop-and-score by Irish linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Notre Dame then scored a field goal off another turnover on Clemson’s next possession, a fumble by wide receiver Amari Rodgers.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, turned the ball over only one time. It was a costly one, as Irish quarterback Ian Book lost the ball near the goal line while trying to run it in for a touchdown, and Clemson linebacker Baylon Spector recovered the fumble in the end zone to thwart the scoring opportunity.
However, the Tigers were unable to capitalize on the turnover offensively as Notre Dame forced a three-and-out on Clemson’s ensuing possession.
“We win the turnover margin, we can win the game, and that’s been the history of this particular series,” Swinney said. “But in any championship game, it’s usually turnovers and big plays. If you win the turnover margin, you have at least two more big plays, you’re going to win the game 98 percent of the time. We lost the margin, we gave up 10 points off of turnovers and we got none, and that was a huge difference in the game.”
Swinney also noted the importance of Clemson getting off to a better start in the rematch against Notre Dame.
While the Irish scored on the second play from scrimmage, a 65-yard touchdown run by Kyren Williams 33 seconds into the game, the Tigers didn’t find the end zone until the 4:11 mark of the first quarter when freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei hooked up with senior wide receiver Cornell Powell for a 53-yard touchdown pass.
“We need to start better,” Swinney said. “14 minutes and 22 seconds on the clock, it’s 7-0, and offense is on the field at the 6-yard line. We didn’t start well, so that’s really the main thing. But whether we’d have won that game by 20 or two or we lost it in a second overtime, it has absolutely nothing to do with this game. Zero. You’ve got to win this game, and we all know that. And when this one’s over, somebody’s going to hold up a trophy.”
The fact that Clemson will have two of its top leaders, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and linebacker James Skalski, back on the field today after both missed the first meeting with Notre Dame figures to help the Tigers’ cause on both sides of the ball.
“There’s no question, and certainly we didn’t have those guys, but we had every opportunity to win that game,” Swinney said. “No question about it, and they earned it, made a few more plays. But Skalski’s the same as Trevor – it’s like I’ve said to you this week, it’s like the waiter walking in with that big tray with like 32 plates, and you’re like ‘oh my God, they’re going to drop that,’ and they just, no problem.
“And that’s kind of who Skalski is, that’s who Trevor is. They just have the ability to have more on their plate, which makes everyone else better, and that just comes from experience and commitment and work ethic. So, just tremendous leaders. Both quarterbacks for each side of the ball.”
Swinney also knows the Tigers will need to do a better job both running the football and stopping the run if they are to avenge their loss to the Irish.
Clemson managed only 34 yards rushing on 33 carries in the regular season affair, while Notre Dame racked up 208 yards rushing on 40 attempts, an average of 5.2 yards per tote.
Another area where the Tigers hope to see improvement in the rematch is third down efficiency. Clemson went 4-of-15 on third down, and Notre Dame converted third downs at a 10-of-19 clip.
“Well, we played with great effort,” Swinney said. “Our effort was tremendous. It’s just cleaner with our fundamentals and our technique, and a little bit assignment as well. We’ve just got to, first of all, not turn the ball over. We’ve got to be more efficient in the run game. This team is really good. They’re built to stop the run. But we’ve got to be more efficient on both sides, defensively and offensively, and more precise on third down. But definitely just execution, technique, fundamentals. In championship games, that’s what it comes down to – just getting your job done, winning more battles. We’re not going to win every battle, but we’ve got to win more battles than we did the first time around.”
The ACC title game is set to kick off at 4 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte and will be televised on ABC.
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