It’s no secret that our Fighting Irish are, well, not expected by much of anyone to beat Clemson and advance to the national title game against Alabama (they just get an automatic berth at this point, right?). As I write this, the betting line is up a couple points to -13. That’s fine, Clemson is a force second only to one. In a more benevolent universe, Nick Saban didn’t flame out of the professional ranks, it’s low Tide in the college football world (hah), and the Tigers have one or two more titles under their belt.
So yeah, who can blame the college football world for assuming the program making its fourth straight showing in the playoff will beat the one making its inaugural appearance. ND might be the only school that gets a result from six years ago directly held against it, which is very cool. Either way, the team is up against it, the breaks are beating the boys, etc. But! I am here to tell you that all is not lost. In case you forgot, the Irish won every single game they’ve played in 2018. That’s 13 in a row! This isn’t exactly a full-throated, shot-calling prediction of victory, but dear reader, here are a few reasons to believe.
Let’s start with the simplest comparison: the transitive property, aka common opponents. Both teams played Wake Forest, and both teams rolled — the Irish by 29 and the Tigers by (yikes) 60. We also took care of Florida State by 29, while Clemson added a healthy 20 to that margin of victory. Let’s assume that Ian Book would’ve added another touchdown or two and call it even.
Things go south when we compare performances against Pitt. The Irish looked kind of terrible, scraping by with a five point win, compared to Clemson’s five score win.
There is, though, one more data point, and this one heavily favors ND. If not for the Coward’s Field Goal that Dino Babers opted for at the end of the game, the Irish would have emerged from the Bronx with a 36 point shutout. Alas. The Tigers only managed a four point margin, heavily struggling with the Orange until the final whistle.
To recap: two examples are more or less even, with both sides taking a clear advantage in one. It’s a wash!
One of the sport’s great equalizers is an ability to break big, game-changing plays, oftentimes when your offense is backed up or otherwise stagnant. I can guarantee the fellas in white will be in one of those situations at some point during the game. One reason that doesn’t give me full-on anxiety nausea is that we have a bona fide home run hitter — one Dexter Williams.
Let’s refresh: a 45 yard TD on his first touch of the season against Stanford. 97 yards to the end zone at Virginia Tech (the longest run in Lane Stadium history makes it easy to forget the 31 yarder he broke in garbage time). 58 and 32 yard scores against FSU. Another 32 yard TD vs Cuse. And, of course, the 52 yard score that gave the Irish a lead they would never relinquish against Southern Cal.
Clemson’s defense is, undoubtedly, great. Their defensive line is one force to be reckoned with after another. But they can be exploited, especially via tosses and misdirection, which Chip Long has called to perfection at times this year, especially at USC. The running game is going to get stuffed more than once. That’s going to happen. But they just might break a couple.
Pass coverage vulnerabilities
With a team as complete as Clemson, using a word like “vulnerability” gives me pause. It’s all kind of relative. But, judging from chatter on the orange and purple side of the web, a vulnerability could be their pass coverage over the middle of the field, especially with linebackers in coverage.
Chris Finke is coming off a stellar performance in the slot against (let’s just say it) USC’s superior athletes. Cole Kmet is healthy and primed for a breakout to set up a big 2019. Alize Mack is looking to give his draft stock a bump as he plays his last game(s) in blue and gold. Look for these guys to move the chains a few times on the 29th, often via quick, efficient passing to negate that monster defensive line.
Not playing in a hurricane
Okay, hear me out: playing football in monsoon conditions is bad and no one should do it. No fanbase is more aware of this than Notre Dame. But the simple fact that this game will be played in the friendlier confines of a domed, neutral-site Jerryworld makes me feel alright. The 2015 Irish put up a hell of a fight on the road against Deshaun Watson’s squad, and if they didn’t start sloppy and spot Clemson two quick touchdowns off the bat, would have won that ballgame. Now we get to duel indoors, unaffected by a rabid, drenched road crowd.
We Are Good
This team is better than the last one that faced Dabo and crew. Whether the other side is better or worse is up for debate, but one thing the 2015 version didn’t have was a (I know, best in his class) true freshman quarterback. The Irish defensive line will be rested and healthy, far removed from the weekly travel grind and the slog in the Coliseum. If they can do enough to make Trevor Lawrence truly uncomfortable in the pocket, we all might need to book an early 2019 trip to Northern California.