Matt Cashore /

Third-and-Whose Advantage?

Notre Dame’s third-down defense shined in wins over Texas, Georgia Tech, and UMass while a trip to Charlottesville offered a mixed bag. As for host Clemson and DeShaun Watson – he’s been either great, or decidedly not, on the game’s most important down.

Texas had no chance, but that was to be expected. Georgia Tech fared marginally better, and their game-long struggles surprised most. UMass? Less relevant to this conversation, but the Minutemen likewise scuffled in the same crucial vein as did their three predecessors inside the House that Rockne Built.

That is, they couldn’t stay on the field vs. defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit, a group that has shined thus far this season on third down.

VanGorder & Co. have won a remarkable 42 of 56 third down situations with the first string on the field:

-- 13 of 15 stops on third down vs. the Longhorns
-- 12 of 15 vs. the Yellow Jackets
-- 9 of 12 vs. UMass

Only Virginia’s 6 for 14 third- and fourth-down success rate (ameliorated by a crucial fourth down conversion late) dented the Irish D.

But Virginia’s chain-moving wins turned contest’s tide, as each of the Cavaliers four touchdowns scored on that thrilling Saturday in Charlottesville ensued as a result.

A greater challenge for VanGorder’s defense waits at Clemson in the form of athletic quarterback DeShaun Watson, the first triggerman faced by Notre Dame this season capable of moving the chains with both his feet and his arm.

“Certainly, this quarterback has the ability to run on us,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Watson. “Getting back into a traditional plan two weeks in a row is definitely helpful. Our D-line was not as sharp last week coming back after the (Georgia Tech) option, no question about that.

“But we're going to have to play a better offense in all areas -- offensive line, receivers, and then the quarterback obviously is the big threat here. He's a game-wrecker.”


Watson was held in check on third down by Louisville’s defense earlier this month, a Sept. 17 outing won by Clemson 20-17 at Papa John’s Stadium. He converted just 4 of 12 third down situations into first downs:

-- Watson was 3 for 7 in third down passing opportunities while also suffering a sack. Each of the three completions moved the chains.

-- In five third down rushing situations, Watson converted just once, stopped short of the sticks three times while also being tackled for loss.

And despite his remarkable true freshman season of 2014, Watson often scuffled on third down including in the contest that served as his national coming out party, a 23-17 OT loss at Florida State in which he converted a combined 3 of 10 chances, either running or passing on third down, against the Seminoles 103rd-ranked third down defense.

Thereafter, Watson settled into a comfort zone, albeit against porous defenses:

-- North Carolina (122nd ranked 3rd Down D): 8 conversions including 3 passing TD in 14 third down opportunities
-- North Carolina State (123rd): Finished a remarkable 10 of 13 in third-down situations, a dual-threat clinic, running and passing for five first downs apiece.  

Following his tour de force against NC State, Watson broke a bone in his finger and missed the next three games.

Upon his return, the freshman tore his LCL early in a loss to Georgia Tech but returned to riddle South Carolina for four combined scores en route to a 35-17 victory to conclude the regular season. Watson converted 5 of 8 third down opportunities in the contest including a touchdown dive against the 86th-ranked third down defense.

(Knee surgery kept him out of the Tigers bowl blowout of Oklahoma.)

A remarkable talent, Saturday’s contest nonetheless marks just the *sixth game in which Watson will serve as the quarterback of record for Clemson against a Power 5 Conference foe.

*Watson has produced otherworldly numbers in his first five such outings. Facing FSU, UNC, NC State, and South Carolina (2014) plus Louisville (2015), Watson hit 98 of 144 passes (68%) for 1,435 yards, 12 passing TD vs. 3 INT, while rushing 55 times for 197 yards and five scores.

Personal highlights will dot the evening’s festivities, as Watson is too talented not to stuff the stat sheet in the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium.

But it’s his successes and missteps on third down against the Irish defense – the best he’s yet faced, though one missing invaluable dime ‘backer and resident QB spy Drue Tranquill – that serves as the chief storyline Saturday between the lines night. Top Stories