Ah. That’s right. Notre Dame-Clemson. Still happening. It’s a bit of a shame this matchup, unlike literally any other game on the 2020 Irish schedule, managed to stick to its originally scheduled date at the end of National Extended-Release Trauma Week, but the hardest and most serious part is about over, and I’m finally letting myself think about our stupid little ballgame. There’s a lot to be excited about, and against my better instincts I’m ready to get over my skies and bite on the “if not now, when?” narrative. “Now or never” is rarely accurate, but you can hardly draw up a more favorable set of breaks for Notre Dame to kick the elephant in the room to the curb. They’ve gotta win the damn thing.
To be clear, Notre Dame can still drop this game and count the season as a qualified success. The two teams are seemingly on a collision course leading to the ACC Championship game, where the loser will get a chance for revenge, theoretically at something closer to full strength. It’s not undefeated or bust. But a rope ladder has been dropped from the top of the proverbial eternally steep and slippery wall, and it’s time to grab hold.
Clemson is still Clemson — they boast a number one poll ranking and the number four spot in the 247 talent composite. But, talent-wise, that’s only four spots above the Irish, who are down their two most explosive receiving targets but otherwise in far less scary territory on the injury/illness front. Any talk of asterisks due to Trevor Lawrence’s absence is pretty nonsensical — D.J. Uiagalelei will likely be the best quarterback in the country sooner rather than later, and is already a terror on the move. We know the Irish are vulnerable over the top (Amari Rodgers is particularly scary) but on the whole, Clemson’s receiving corps is not at the same level as 2018’s.
Soon-to-be (should-be-currently?) professional terror-on-the-move Travis Etienne is probably the best at what he does at the college level, but the Clemson offensive line is, frankly, no Notre Dame, especially on the interior. The Tigers have only averaged 5 or more yards per carry in one game to date this season, although that was in another marquee-ish matchup against the Canes. Etienne is maybe more dangerous in the passing game, averaging 15 yards per catch, and will likely require attention from Kyle Hamilton or JOK at all times. Otherwise he’s simply too talented to contain, like, at all, so we’re in for a small-scale clash of the titans when the Irish defense is on the field.
Point is, though, that Dabo and crew should not be able to mask Lawrence’s absence by simply running the damn ball. The Irish defense is good enough to counter, and receivers Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. are currently banged up as well. On the other side, Clemson is (literally) hurting, having been absolutely gashed by injuries and suspensions. James Skalski, commonly referred to as the defense’s “heart and soul,” is out. Star defensive tackle Tyler Davis is out. Starting linebacker Mike Jones Jr. (who?) is out. Five star defensive end Xavier Thomas won’t be available until the second half thanks to a targeting call last Saturday (same goes for Marist Liufau, but their impacts are barely comparable).
There’s stuff to be excited about all over the place, one being the fact that Tommy Rees gets an early shot at college football’s probable best defensive coordinator. Brent Venables will surely bring an airtight gameplan to the table, but he’s in a tight spot. How does Clemson counter Notre Dame’s offensive bread and butter — top-tier tight end talent and a reliably bruising running game — with those injuries, in those places? A dime defense is not how you beat Notre Dame. I know we all want a surprise Jordan Johnson breakout (or even just a few snaps here and there), but this needs to be Michael Mayer’s arrival on the national stage.
Ian Book in particular has a chance to cement his legacy at Notre Dame, although that’s already quite secure to a certain point. His much-maligned receivers are, in my view, good enough to get the job done given the talent level across the rest of the offense. Avery Davis and Javon McKinley currently look as good as they ever have in an Irish uniform, and if Ben Skowronek can challenge the Clemson secondary with deep crossing routes (and if Book can actually give him a shot on go routes) we’re in good shape.
The what-ifs attached to Saturday — what if Lawrence was available, what if we lived in a better, non-pandemic world where the stadium could be filled to capacity, etc. — certainly add color to the story surrounding the game, but don’t detract from the bottom line. Clemson is rightfully favored to take this one, but it’s hard not to dream about what could be. Everything is on the table, and it’s time to finally win one of these.