Trevor Groves

CUTigers Preview of Saturday's Top-11 Showdown Between Clemson and Notre Dame in Death Valley

It will be a clash of undefeated titans in Death Valley this Saturday, as #6 Notre Dame travels to Death Valley to play #11 Clemson. Here is my weekly preview of the game, along with a recruiting update from CUTigers Recruiting Analyst Gary McDaniel.

Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing! Bye weeks are always tough on us fans, but it really came at a perfect time for this team. Not only did it give them the opportunity to convalesce—Gore, Fruhmorgen, Norton, Rogers and Register are all banged up—but it also gave the staff the requisite time to do plenty of game-planning for this crucial two-game stretch with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. In particular, the kicking coverage unit has been a chronic problem through the first 3 games, and we’ll touch on that a little later.

 

First, some recruiting news. As expected, this game is a veritable “who’s who” of the Clemson recruiting scene. Gary McDaniel has assembled a roll call of commits and prospects that will be in attendance at Death Valley Saturday night, ranging from next year’s class to the 2018 class. Here is the list he has put together so far.

 

2016 Clemson Commits:

Sean Pollard

Zerrick Cooper 

Cornell Powell 

Tavien Feaster

Tre Lamar

Jamie Skalski

Chandler Reeves

TJ Chase 

J.C. Chalk

Nyles Pinckney

Xavier Kelly

 

2017 Clemson Commits:

 

Baylon Spector (Calhoun, GA)

 

Prospects

2016:

Rahshaun Smith LB IMG Academy (Baltimore, MD) 

Diondre Overton WR Page HS (Greensboro, NC) 

Jayson Hopper WR Lexington HS (Lexington, SC) 

John Simpson OL Fort Dorchester HS  (Charleston, SC)

Cade Stewart OL DW Daniel HS (Central, SC)

Troy Pride Jr. DB Greer HS (Greer, SC)

 

2017:

Chase Brice QB Grayon HS (Loganville, GA)

Hendon Hooker QB  Dudley HS (Greensboro, NC) 

James Robinson WR Lakeland HS (Lakeland, FL) 

A.J. Davis RB Lakeland HS (Lakeland, FL) 

Shi Smith WR Unoin HS (Union, SC) 

Juwan Burgess WR  (Tampa, FL)

Eric Douglas Mallard Creek OL  HS (Charlotte, NC)

Justin Foster LB  Crest HS (Shelby, NC)

Breyon Gaddy DL  (Virginia Beach, VA) 

Brandon Gaddy TE (Virginia Beach VA)

Robert Beal DE  (Norcross, GA)

Trajan Bandy  Db, Miami Columbus HS (Miami, FL) 

Nico Collins WR Clay-Chalkville HS (Pinson, AL) 

 

2018:

Xavier Thomas DE Wilson HS (Florence SC) 

Ben Batson Qb DW Daniel HS (Central, SC)

Devondre “Tank” Robinson Lake Marion HS (Santee, SC)

Dakereon Joyner ATH Fort Dorchester HS (Charleston, SC) 

Devon Hunter DB Indian River HS (Chesepaeke , VA) 

Ryan Jones WR Mallard Creek HS (Charlotte, NC) 

Stuart Head DB Etowah HS (Woodstock, GA)

Chandler Wooten OL Norh Cobb HS (Kennesaw, GA) 

Derion Kendrick  ATH South Pointe HS (Rock Hill, SC) 

Trevor Lawrence QB Cartersville HS (Cartersville, GA)

Kahlid Jones LB (Greenville, SC)

Zamir White RB (Laurinburg, NC)

 

From Gary:

The Tigers staff expects almost 100% attendance from current players committed to Clemson. Stay tuned, as we will follow up with a number of these recruits in the upcoming weeks here on CUTigers. And be sure to keep an eye open for our “Recruits at the Game” gallery on Monday.

Some recruiting Insider info:

Despite what he might say publicly, 4-star OL John Simpson has trimmed his list, with a certain in-state school ominously left off. Inside sources have revealed that Simpson has named Clemson, Tennessee and Florida as his final three. Clemson has had the lead from the outset of Simpson’s recruiting, with the word being that he came real close to committing during Dabo’s camp in June.

The staff laid out a 2016 offer to Charlotte, NC DB/WR Myles Dorn, who was one of the Charlotte Player’s of the Week last week.  Dorn has informed me that he will not be in attendance on Saturday. Instead, he is going to NCST this week as previously arranged prior to the Clemson offer.  Keep an eye on this prospect, though.

Two in-state under-the-radar recruits that Clemson is hosting this weekend include WR Jayson Hopper (Lexington, SC) and OL Cade Stewart (Central,SC) . Both players are sitting on offers from FCS schools and a few FBS offers. Both are being told there may be room in the class for them. Hopper was one of the best WR’s at Dabo Swinney’s camp overall. And Stewart is a road-grading mauler with a mean streak. Keep an eye on these two as things move forward.

 

Thanks, Gary! By my estimation, that’s in the neighborhood of $20,000 worth of seats being occupied by those kids. There has been much speculation about Rahshaun Smith ever since he de-committed from Clemson back in early August. Many feel that he only did so in order to be able to enjoy the recruiting process and all the opportunities that come with it, but that he will ultimately be wearing Clemson Orange. It’s certainly a good sign that he is making the trip to Clemson to be in attendance for this huge game. If he’s wearing a little orange in Death Valley, so much the better. We’ll have photos of Rahshaun and all the rest of these recruits for you. As a side note, the nation’s #1 RB and Clemson commit, Tavien Feaster, will be playing Friday night as his #12 Spartanburg team plays at #25 Byrnes. Gary will be covering the game for his weekly Friday Night Lights feature, and I will be there as well. Hopefully we’ll get you some good video clips of Feaster in action! Also, look for a new weekly video feature in the next couple days. A little pre-game rant from our own resident Clemson Rally Cat! I think y’all will enjoy it. On to the game….

 

This game needs no introduction nor superfluous hype. It comes with hype included. Every Clemson fan has been pointing to this game ever since it was announced Notre Dame would play in Death Valley in 2015 a couple of years ago. As most of you know, the Irish have ventured to Death Valley only once in their storied history. That was in 1977, when a little-known quarterback named Joe Montana led Notre Dame from behind to beat Clemson by a score of 14-10. The game featured two future Super Bowl champions in Montana and Steve Fuller. Fuller’s number, of course, will be worn by Deshaun Watson, with a tributary patch on his jersey. Also going head-to-head in that game were Montana and Dwight Clark—the two participants of “The Catch,” one of the most famous plays in NFL history. The Irish went on to beat the rest of its opponents by an average of 37 points and win the national title that year. Fortunately, Clemson got its revenge two years later and won in South Bend to tie the series at one game apiece. 36 years later, we finally get the rubber match! Incidentally, Saturday will be exactly 1977 weeks since that first meeting in Death Valley. How’s that for destiny?

This game would have been a tough ticket on the historical basis alone. Throw in the fact that both teams are unbeaten and ranked in the top 11, thrown in the fact that ESPN College Gameday will be on hand and you have one of the all-time spectacles in Clemson history. This is probably the most expensive ticket in Clemson history as well—asking prices have been anywhere from $300 to $1,200 per ticket! Everyone in the Clemson program has received unprecedented ticket requests for this one. Dabo said that people he hasn’t heard from in 20 years have been calling him up and asking for tickets. Of course, Pope Francis was just in the U.S., and that has kind of added fuel to the inferno of hype surrounding Clemson’s eagerly anticipated showdown with the Catholic school. For the trivial pursuit fans out there, Notre Dame is now 6-0 all-time with the Pope in the country. Thank goodness His Holiness is back in the Vatican now! By the way, our esteemed SID and Notre Dame alumnus, Tim Bourret, informed me that Chris Fowler texted him yesterday, asking him if he had any extra tickets because Jesus needs two. Tim also said that Notre Dame would not be bringing its band because it didn’t want to allocate any of its 5,000 ticket allotment to band members. That’s when you know it’s a big game! I guess we won’t be entertained by the “Imperial March” being played on the xylophones Saturday night.

This showdown has not lacked the commensurate pre-game chatter between the players either. As you all know, the Clemson players have elected to abstain from any tweeting or re-tweeting for the duration of the season, but a couple of the players did mention during interviews that they were aware of some of the tweets and quotes coming from the Notre Dame camp. Jayron Kearse said that not only was he aware that WR Will Fuller tweeted that Clemson had better be ready because it was going to be “savage” on Saturday, Kearse said he favorited the tweet! Kearse said that he expects it to be a “chippy game.” Jayron is renowned for his proclivity for trash-talking, but I was a little surprised to hear LG Eric Mac Lain say that he enjoyed talking trash during the game. He said he considers it “the game within the game.” Here is what Notre Dame CB KeiVarae Russell said to the media about Deshaun Watson:

“I watched the Louisville game,” Russell said. “I saw some weaknesses in that game for sure. I seen some strengths as well. They are a good team. I think Deshaun Watson manages the game well. I’ve played against quarterbacks better than him, I’ve played against quarterbacks that weren’t as good as him…He’s not overly superior, I don’t think he’s like a top five quarterback in the country, I think he manages the game extremely well, and does what the offense asks of him. He doesn’t do too much, but he does enough for him. I don’t think he’s a top-five quarterback, but he’s a good quarterback, though.”

Not exactly insulting, but perhaps Russell is underestimating Watson a hair. I’m not sure if he’s aware Watson’s QBR last season was not only top-5, it was #1. It seems unwise to make comments like that about a guy of Watson’s caliber. I imagine Mackensie Alexander will have a thing or two to say on the field as well. Hopefully, though, the Tigers will do most of their talking with their play!

 

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Players of the game against Louisville were Kevin Dodd and Cordrea Tankersley on defense, Wayne Gallman on offense and Greg Huegel on special teams……This will be Dabo's 10th game against a top-10 team as head coach. Clemson is 6-3 in those games. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has lost 4 straight games versus top-15 teams.......Jake Fruhmorgen is Catholic and grew up a big Notre Dame fan but hasn't forgotten that they did not recruit him early on...Former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy is second all-time in winning percentage, behind only his mentor, Knute Rockney. Before his stint at Notre Dame, Leahy was the head coach at BC and lost to Clemson in the 1940 Cotton Bowl, which was Clemson’s first bowl game….Dematha High School product Ricky Gray lettered in both schools. He was a TE for Clemson in 1980, transferred to Holy Cross Junior College (of Rudy fame) in 1981 and then matriculated to Notre Dame, where he lettered from 1982-84. Must have hurt to miss out on that national title…..Only 8 athletes in college sports history have earned All-America honors in both football and basketball. Clemson and Notre Dame produced 2 of the 8 in Banks McFadden and Moose Krause……The only time Clemson has been tied with another school in a final poll was in 1978 when Clemson and Notre Dame were tied for 6th in the nation in the final UPI Coaches Poll. The two teams met in the preceding and subsequent seasons, splitting the two games. Coincidentally, Notre Dame comes into this game with a #6 ranking….Horace Grant was Clemson’s only ACC Basketball MVP in 1986-87. His nephew, Jerian, was MVP of the ACC Tournament last season and led Notre Dame to the ACC Championship, witnessed by Horace and Harvey Grant, who also played for Clemson. Jerian’s older brother, Jerai, also had a distinguished basketball career at Clemson….

 

CLEMSON STATUS

Most felt that the performance by Clemson’s offense at Louisville left something to be desired. The Tigers moved the ball fairly well but struggled to complete drives with points. Deshaun Watson had decent numbers, but they weren’t the video game stats to which we’ve become accustomed from him. He also threw two interceptions—the first time he has done that in a single game, I believe—and he rushed a throw to a wide-open Leggett at the end of the game that would have all but sealed the victory. Again, not a bad performance by Deshaun or the offense, but it wasn’t the breakout display of offensive superiority that Clemson fans were hoping and expecting to see. All of that notwithstanding, we must remember that the team was playing on the road for the very first time and on short rest. In addition, Clemson lost its top two right tackles in the first half of play. Starter Joe Gore would return to the game but was playing hurt. Also, Louisville’s defensive scheme was designed to keep everything in front of it and prevent down field throws. Consequently, Scott and Elliott took what the defense was giving them—which meant a lot of run plays and short screen passes. Expect Notre Dame to play more press-man coverage, which will hopefully open up more opportunities down field. Peake needs to make a couple of plays of that nature to stretch the field. Scott is also hoping that Trevion Thompson and/or Deon Cain will be able to represent down field threats in the absence of Mike Williams. Neither one is going to step in and be what Mike Williams was to this offense, but each has shown glimpses that he is ready to make some contributions. I think it’s safe to say that we will see a little more razzle-dazzle on Saturday than we have seen thus far. Obviously, the play-calling was very vanilla in the first two games because of the disparity in talent, and Louisville’s defensive strategy dictated more of a conservative offensive attack, so I would expect to see Scott and Elliott unveil a thing or two that will please the crowd.

The biggest area of concern after 3 games has been the struggles by the coverage unit on kicks. They allowed over 200 yards in kick returns against App State and had the enormous breakdown at Louisville for a 100-yard touchdown that nearly cost them the game. It is disconcerting that despite the situation having the full attention of the staff after the App State game, we saw the exact same mistakes occur at Louisville. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that there were only 3 days of preparation time between those two games. The coverage unit is the purview of Brent Venables and Marion Hobby. They are two of the best in the business, and they should be trusted to get the problem corrected. This is where having the bye week should be beneficial. The coaches have made a few personnel changes and also spent extra time ensuring that the players’ technique is sound. It better be because C.J. Sanders is a dangerous return man for the Irish, who returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown last week against UMass and completely changed the complexion of that game.

Aside from the coverage holes, the rest of Clemson’s special teams have been solid. Freshman Greg Huegel is 4/5 on FG’s, including a 47-yarder and a pair of clutch ones in a pressure-packed, nationally televised road game. I would be pleased to see Lakip off to that kind of a start, let alone the former walk-on. Teasdall has also been very reliable in the punting game. Huegel hasn’t done a bad job on kickoffs, but you might see Lakip take over that responsibility on Saturday night, depending on how he performed in practice this week.

Ironically, the one unit that doesn’t seem to be a concern is the defense. They are ranked #3 in pass efficiency and are in the top-10 of 3 major defensive categories, including total defense. They certainly carried the load at Louisville for the second consecutive year and secured the victory right down to the final play. As much as Dabo and Venables told us throughout camp that the defense would be comparable to last year’s #1 unit, I think everyone was incredulous of that to a certain extent—myself included—due to the inexperience behind the starters. However, no one could be anything but ecstatic with the way they have acquitted themselves so far. Kearse, Alexander, Boulware and Shaq have all been the play-makers we expected them to be, and Tankersley has fulfilled the promise I saw in preseason camp. He had a tremendous game at Louisville. True freshman Christian Wilkins, Scott Pagano and Carlos Watkins have exceeded expectations. Green and Blanks have also been pleasant surprises.

 

You can read my grades and analysis of the Louisville game HERE. 

 

NOTRE DAME SYNOPSIS

Admittedly, Notre Dame has looked better this season than I expected them to be in the offseason. After a 6-0 start last season leading up to the big game with FSU, the Irish lost 5 out of 6, including a 49-14 blowout loss to USC. They did finish on a positive note, however, beating LSU in their bowl game on a last-second FG. Notre Dame has sustained significant injuries already this season. Obviously, they lost starting QB Malik Zaire for the season. They are also minus starting RB Tarean Folston, starting DT Jarron Jones and a slew of other players. WR Corey Robinson has a hurt knee but is listed as probable for Saturday.

Apparently, Notre Dame has recruited pretty well over the last few years because they haven’t missed a beat due to the injuries. Freshman QB DeShone Kizer has played like a veteran from the moment his number was called, throwing a game-winning bomb on the money to Will Fuller in Charlottesville to avoid an upset loss to UVA. Former DB C.J. Prosise has been converted to RB and is running like an All-American. He is averaging 150 yards per game and is on pace to set a Notre Dame rushing record by a strong margin. He has averaged 9 yards per carry over the last 3 games. Needless to say, this is the hottest and most talented RB Clemson will have faced so far.

WR Will Fuller might be the best receiver in the nation right now. He is averaging 113.5 yards per game, 20.6 yards per catch and already has 6 touchdowns. 

Notre Dame’s biggest strength is its offensive line. They are massive, athletic and physical. The battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball will have a huge impact on which team wins this game. 

Defensively, the best pass rushers for the Irish are Sheldon Day, who lines up predominately at the three-technique, and Isaac Rochell. Day has 2 sacks on the season and 4 tackles-for-loss. Notre Dame only has 8 sacks in 4 games, but one of those games was Georgia Tech, which is obviously an atypical offense. The Notre Dame secondary has only one interception in 4 games, and they have recovered two fumbles. LB Jaylon Smith has 4.5 TFL's and one sack. 

 

 

On to the prediction….

 

This will be a game of compelling matchups. Clemson’s #3-ranked secondary against Notre Dame’s talented and physical WR’s. Notre Dame’s outstanding offensive line versus the Clemson defensive front. Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman is All-American candidate LT Ronnie Stanley. Some experts have projected him as the #1 offensive lineman to be taken in next year’s draft. He will be matched up against Shaq Lawson all night long, and it will likely be the best opponent each player sees all season. Lawson is not quite the quick-twitch pass rusher that Vic Beasley was, but he is more powerful and better in run support. Will Shaq be able to get to the freshman quarterback consistently with one of the best in the nation blocking him? Will Clemson's rush defense--which allowed only 19 yards to Louisville and shut down Wofford's triple-option--be able to stop C.J. Prosise, who is one of the nation's hottest backs, running behind one of the best offensive lines?

There is also the matchup of WR Will Fuller—who Venables said is playing like the best WR in the nation right now—and Mackensie Alexander and/or Cordrea Tankersley. Both are physical corners who love to play tight, press coverage, and Fuller is a physical receiver with a height advantage, so this will be another very intriguing duel. The x-factor here could be Jayron Kearse. Fuller will not have a height advantage on “The Freak II.” Fuller reminds me a lot of Mike Evans from Texas A&M a couple years ago. The scenario is reminiscent of when Calvin Johnson was putting up video game highlights against every team he played in 2006, and C.J. Gaddis and company were able to completely shut Johnson down, preventing him from making a single reception for the only time in his prestigious career. That was the first time Clemson hosted ESPN College Gameday, incidentally. I don’t expect us to see a repeat of that, but let’s hope the Clemson secondary will come out on top of this mammoth matchup and limit Fuller’s big plays.

As I noted above, Notre Dame has been more impressive in September than I expected them to be—especially considering the injuries that have befallen them. However, it is important to bear in mind that the competition it has faced hasn’t been stellar. The Irish were a last-minute long touchdown pass away from losing to a beleaguered UVA team that was torched at home by Boise State. They beat up on another down-trodden Texas team to open the season. Even Georgia Tech, who many thought were a legitimate top-10 team preseason, has been exposed by Duke as somewhat overrated. That being said, this team still has more talent than any Clemson has faced. They are also well-coached, and most of them have played in big-time, hostile environments before.

The one x-factor is probably freshman QB DeShone Kizer. His poise under pressure and maturity beyond his years are eerily similar to what we saw from Clemson’s Deshaun, of the same pronunciation. The two QB’s, by the way, played in the Elite 11 camp together, and Watson considers Kizer a friend. Kizer was able to lead the Irish to a come-from-behind win at UVA and a home win against GT. However, this will be his first real test in an enormous game on the national stage in an environment that can make your ears bleed. There is simply no way to simulate that until he has experienced it first-hand. From what I have seen of him, I am going to give Kizer the benefit of the doubt and assume he exhibits the same poise he has displayed so far. If that is the case, this game will most likely come down to which team makes the least mistakes—be it on special teams, turnovers, penalties, etc. Both teams are extremely similar in all phases. However, Clemson has 85,000 screaming teammates on its side.

The common narrative you hear over and over with this team is that they truly view and prepare for every game the same way, with the same focus and intensity--whether it's Wofford or Notre Dame. I believe that is really the case. Dabo has pounded that philosophy home with them so many times that it is deeply embedded in their psyche. I don't think you will see a team that is caught up in or distracted by all of the hoopla that surrounds this game. Forget about Gameday, forget about the uniforms, forget about how long it's been since Notre Dame has been to Death Valley, forget about which team is a 2-point favorite.

 

I was born and raised Catholic, and I will have my Rosary with me just for good measure. There will be no "waking of the echoes" in this one. All of the echoes will be coming from Orange-clad Clemson fans in Death Valley. Onward to victory!

 

The prowl toward the CFP takes a big leap forward, and Clemson improves its record to 3-1 all-time when hosting ESPN Gameday.

 

 

CLEMSON 31 Notre Dame 20

 


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