Prister’s Preview: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

The Irish look to parlay a veteran edge (nine starting seniors to Clemson’s four), as well as the experience of going toe-to-toe with Florida State last year in Tallahassee.

Clemson head coach

Dabo Swinney (8th year at Clemson) – Swinney, 45, took over the head-coaching job at Clemson from Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season, where he has fashioned a 64-26 record, at least 10 victories in each of the past four seasons, and consecutive bowl victories over LSU (25-24) in the Chick-fil-A, Ohio State (40-35) in the Orange and Oklahoma (40-6) in the Russell Athletic.

Swinney arrived in Clemson in 2003 as wide receivers coach and eventually was named assistant head coach. Swinney’s first coaching job was at Alabama – his alma mater – where he was a walk-on football player. Her served as wide receivers/tight ends coach for the Crimson Tide from 1996-2000.

Swinney boasts a 42-6 record in Clemson Memorial Stadium, commonly known as Death Valley. The Tigers have won 28 of their last 30 games at home.


Key personnel

• QB-Deshaun Watson (Soph.) – An injury-riddled rookie season limited Watson to 1,466 yards passing and 14 touchdowns. But he completed 67.9 percent of his passes with just two interceptions in 137 throws. He’s completed 58-of-78 passes this season (74.4 percent) for 641 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Also a running threat with 200 yards and five touchdowns last year.
• CB-Mackensie Alexander (Soph.) – Highly-touted cover man still looking for his first career interception, but teams have avoided him like the plague. He allowed just 20 of the 57 passes thrown his way last year to be completed for 280 yards and two scores. In three games this year, opponents have completed just one pass on eight attempts his way. He has not allowed a touchdown pass in his last 12 games. A good bet to match up against Notre Dame’s Will Fuller.
• WR-Artavis Scott (Soph.) – Top-returning receiver after a rookie year of 76 receptions, 1,030 yards and eight touchdowns. Has picked up where he left off with 20 catches for 188 yards and two scores.
• RB-Wayne Gallman (Soph.) – Rushed for 769 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman in ’14. Off to an even faster start in ’15 with 310 yards, a 5.8-yard average and three scores through the first three games. Rushed for 139 yards on 24 carries two weeks ago in victory over Louisville.
• FS-Jayron Kearse (Jr.) – Leading returning tackler on a defense that brought back just two starters from ’14 defense. Picked off four passes as a true freshman in ’13, two more last year, and has one this season for a defense with five thefts on just 81 attempts.
• DE-Shaq Lawson (Jr.) – Caught in the shadow of first-round draft choice Vic Beasley, Lawson still finished with 11 tackles for loss despite Beasley’s 262 additional snaps. Top returning sack man with 3.5. Already has six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in three games. Lawson spearheaded a defensive front that limited Louisville to 19 yards rushing on 28 carries with five sacks of Cardinals quarterback Kyle Bolin.


What Clemson does well

• Win: Clemson is one of just four FBS teams to win as many as 10 games each of the last four seasons. The Tigers were 42-11 from 2011-14. Alabama (48-6), Oregon (48-7) and Northern Illinois (46-10) are the only other programs to reach double-digit victories each of the last four seasons.
• Win in Death Valley: Dabo Swinney is 42-6 (.872) in Clemson Memorial Stadium. Clemson has won 28 of its last 30 and 11 in a row at home, including a 7-0 mark in 2014. Its only losses during the last four years have come to 11-victory South Carolina in 2012, and 14-0/2013 national champion Florida State.
• Score: Although the Tigers took a step back last year by averaging 30.8 points per game (54th nationally), they averaged 40.2 points per game in 2013 and 41.0 in 2012. (The loss of offensive coordinator Chad Morris to SMU could prove significant.)
• Tackles behind the line of scrimmage: The Tigers have led the nation in tackles for loss each of the last two seasons, including 45 sacks in ‘14. Their 131 tackles for loss last year (10.1 per game) were the most on record since the NCAA officially began tracking it as a team stat in 2006. In 2013, the Tigers had 123 behind the line of scrimmage in 13 games (9.46). Clemson is right on pace this year with 28 in three games.

Where Clemson struggles

• Kick coverage: The Tigers allowed a 100-yard kickoff return by Louisville’s Traveon Samuel with 9:41 remaining, which pulled the Cardinals to within three. Appalachian State had eight kick returns for 208 yards (25.6).
• Youthful offensive line: Left tackle Isaiah Battle’s decision to enter the NFL supplemental draft in the spring, the knee injury to center Ryan Norton, and ankle and knee injuries to right tackles Joe Gore (questionable) and Jake Fruhmorgen (probable) have left Clemson vulnerable up front. The Tigers starting offensive line has a true freshman left tackle (Mitch Hyatt), a red-shirt sophomore at right guard with one start and six games prior to ’15 (Tyrone Crowder), one of the two banged up right tackles, a converted tight end at left guard (Eric Mac Lain) and junior center (Jay Guillermo) with just one start prior to this season.
• Penalties: The Tigers have been whistled for 21 penalties, including nine for 75 yards against Appalachian State.


 Kelly’s Call

“Our football team was well prepared for Florida State, relative to being on the road and a loud crowd and all the things that go with that. I thought out kids handled that very well. We didn’t have a lot of communication errors on the field. We just didn’t make a play or two at the end that we needed to.

“So we’ll continue in that same vein. Most of these kids played in that game. I think we’ll have a lot of carryover. We’ll talk in terms of the same kind of environment, very similar, I believe. We’ll talk about how we’ll need to prepare.”


Odds and ends

Only North Carolina State (1), Louisville (1), and Virginia Tech (0) have played Notre Dame less than the Tigers among current ACC programs. This is just the third meeting between Notre Dame and Clemson with each team winning on the other team’s home field. Trailing 17-7, a Joe Montana-led fourth quarter – with Montana scoring both touchdowns -- lifted the Irish to a 21-17 victory at Clemson in 1977. The Nov. 12 victory over the No. 15 Tigers kept Notre Dame’s national title hopes alive, which the Irish ultimately realized…Two years later, it was Notre Dame that held the 10-0 halftime lead at home, narrowly missing a 17-0 advantage due to a holding penalty. The Tigers scored 13 third-quarter points and added a field goal in the fourth to claim a 16-10 victory. Notre Dame finished 7-4 while Clemson posted an 8-4 mark with a Peach Bowl loss…

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is 6-3 versus teams ranked among the nation’s top 10. The Irish enter Memorial Stadium ranked No. 6 in this week’s AP poll. The irony is that five of those six wins have come on the road -- @ No. 8 Miami (40-37) in 2009; @ No. 11 Virginia Tech (23-3) and vs. No. 5 Virginia Tech (38-10) in the 2011 ACC title game; vs. No. 9 LSU (25-24) in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl; and vs. No. 7 Ohio State in the 2014 Orange Bowl (2013 season). The only home win vs. a top 10 team under Swinney came against No. 5 Georgia (38-35) in 2013…Georgia is the last team to hold Clemson scoreless. It came in 2003 when the Bulldogs claimed a 30-0 victory in Death Valley. Georgia’s defense was coordinated by current Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder…Clemson will visit Notre Dame Stadium in 2020 and 2022; Notre Dame will visit Clemson again in 2023.


Prister’s breakdown

There are some fascinating individual and position-by-position match-ups in this game, which adds to the beauty of a first-weekend-in-October clash of relative strangers.

How long has it been since Notre Dame and Clemson last met on the football field? Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford was a couple of years removed from birth the last time the Irish and Tigers tangled.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had to replace eight starters from a unit that finished No. 1 in total defense (260.8 ypg.), allowed just 16.7 points per game (No. 3 nationally), finished No. 5 in rushing defense (103.3), and ranked No. 2 in passing defense (157.4 ypg.). So far this year – against Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville – it looks pretty similar. The Tigers are No. 10 in scoring defense (12.3), No. 9 in total defense (260.7), and No. 30 in rush defense (114.6 ypg.).

In Notre Dame, the Tigers will be facing their most formidable foe yet – by far – although the Irish have beaten up on some vulnerable defenses. While the Irish rank 12th in rushing offense (284.7 ypg.), 15th in total offense (531.3 ypg.), 21st in scoring (41.0 ppg.), and 53rd in pass offense (246.5 ypg.), they’ve done it against the 43rd scoring defense (Georgia Tech), No. 105 (Texas, 35.3), No. 111 Virginia (38.3) and No. 123 (UMass, 45.0). The Yellow Jackets did most of their best work against Alcorn State and Tulane.

Cornerback Mackenzie Alexander vs. wide receiver Will Fuller, and defensive end Shaq Lawson vs. left tackle Ronnie Stanley, are the featured one-on-one battles. Alexander will get help on Fuller from 6-foot-5, 220-pound strong safety Jayron Kearse if needed, which is a rarity. Safety help over the top will force third-time starting quarterback DeShone Kizer to hook up with Chris Brown, slot receiver Amir Carlisle, and Notre Dame’s ever-changing corps of tight ends, all of whom have excelled.

The positional matchup that pits strength vs. strength is Notre Dame’s offensive line against Clemson’s defensive front. Fifth-year senior center Nick Martin is the ringleader of the unit, along with projected first-round draft choice Ronnie Stanley. Newcomer Quenton Nelson has been a standout at left guard. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey will face his greatest test to date while right guard Steve Elmer excels in the power run game.

Clemson is stout up front defensively The starting quartet of ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and tackles Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano have combined for 75 stops with 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Their backups have accounted for another 46 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. It’s a group that’s better at holding the point of attack than rushing the passer – the team has just seven sacks against inferior competition – but the line is accustomed to making plays.

What the defensive line doesn’t get to, linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson clean up on the ground. Boulware (8) and Goodson (4) also have combined for 12 quarterback pressures.

Notre Dame’s offensive line against Clemson’s defensive front will be a huge indicator as to who wins this game with the edge on paper to the Irish. Injuries and the spring departure of left tackle Isaiah Battle have left the Tigers in a vulnerable state.

Notre Dame’s defense has gone through spasms against Virginia and UMass as both teams scored a flurry of points in a short period of time. Outside of those two letdowns – neither of which can be overlooked in such a big game this early in the season – Brian VanGorder’s defense has been dominant with 22 three-and-outs and the No. 16 third-down defense (26.2 percent).

It still remains to be seen just how well the Clemson offense will function over the long haul without offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who took over as head coach at SMU following the 2014 season.

The X factor is Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who flashed signs of brilliance as a true freshman in 2014 before succumbing to a series of injuries, including a late-season ACL tear.

Watson has been, if there is such a thing, an erratic 74.4 percent passer in three games this season. Both Appalachian State and Louisville intercepted Watson in the opening series, and he was picked again later in the Louisville game. That’s one more pick than he’s had in 137 attempts in ’14.

When Watson is operating on the move, he is a run-pass threat that is difficult to contain. As Watson goes, so goes the Clemson offense, and he has plenty of downfield weapons from which to choose, led by sophomore Artavis Scott. Scott burst onto the scene as a true freshman last year, finishing with 76 receptions for 965 yards and eight touchdowns.

Eight of the top nine receivers returned, including 6-foot-4, 210-pound Mike Williams, who caught 57 passes for 1,030 yards with a spectacular 18.1 yards per reception and six touchdowns. But Williams is sidelined with a neck injury suffered early in the season-opener against Wofford.

Injuries/departures have taken a toll on both teams. In addition to Williams, the Tigers have lost starting nickel Korrin Wiggins (knee), starting center Ryan Norton (knee), projected starting defensive tackle D.J. Reader (left team for personal reasons), and kicker Ammon Lakip (suspension) with right tackles Joe Gore (ankle) and Jake Fruhmorgen (knee) hobbled.

The Irish have lost a starting quarterback (Malik Zaire), running back (Tarean Folston), tight end (Durham Smythe), nose tackle (Jarron Jones), sub-package standout (Drue Tranquill) and nickel back (Shaun Crawford).

There appears little doubt now that torrential rains will be descending upon Clemson this weekend with a forecast of 6-to-12 inches of precipitation expected as Hurricane Joaquin descends upon the east coast. That favors the Irish with their veteran offensive line. It also will dampen a hostile Clemson crowd, which will have much greater difficulty maintaining its roar amidst the downpour.

If Kizer protects the football, takes a sack instead of putting it up for grabs, and relies on the field-flipping ability of Tyler Newsome, the Irish should be able to rely upon its offensive line in a 60-minute game of attrition. Notre Dame won’t be able to dominant up front like they have the first four games, but they’ll have an advantage that Clemson’s offensive line won’t be able to claim.

Notre Dame is the more experienced team with nine seniors in its starting lineup compared to Clemson’s four. Look for a mature, well-prepared Notre Dame team to enter Memorial Stadium Saturday night with the concentration, focus and determination to get the job done under difficult conditions.

Pointspread: Clemson by 1 1/2; over-under 54
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, Clemson 17
2015 Season Record: 3-1 straight up; 0-4 vs. points; 2-2 over-under


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