Irish Illustrated covered two crucial storylines earlier this week, with Tim Prister’s piece on the high-profile perimeter matchup between Will Fuller vs. Mackensie Alexander and this examining Notre Dame’s outstanding third down defense against Clemson dual-threat triggerman Deshaun Watson.
In addition to those feature storylines are our weekly handful of matchups and telltale situations to monitor for Saturday’s prime time matchup between the Irish and the Tigers.
1 – In the Trenches: Irish left tackle Ronnie Stanley vs. Clemson’s rising star Shaq Lawson has garnered the bulk of media attention, and it’s doubtless the contest’s marquee matchup up front. But for Notre Dame fans, it’s a competitor down the line that might have a bigger impact on the outcome.
Right guard Steve Elmer will make his 22nd career start Saturday. Each of the previous has featured moments of merit as a drive-blocker for the Irish running game – but others have included few-too-many missteps in pass protection. Elmer’s ability to protect against the best defensive front the Irish have seen – and maybe will see this season – will prove crucial to the outcome.
2 – Between the Hashes: Quarterback DeShone Kizer’s second start was bereft the Will Fuller/Chris Brown tunnel vision displayed in his first six quarters as the squad’s triggerman. Instead, the redshirt-freshman spread his passes both between and outside the hash marks, targeting Fuller and Brown a combined 11 times (compared to 19 vs. Georgia Tech) while finding chief inside targets Amir Carlisle (7), and tight ends Aliz’e’ Jones and Nic Weishar a combined five.
Stressing the Tigers defense Saturday night will require similar balance, but more important will be Kizer’s (and head coach Brian Kelly’s) willingness to keep the passing attack vertical rather than play into Clemson’s hands with too heavy a reliance on the horizontal (bubble screens, tunnel screens, etc.).
The latter could result in a feeding frenzy for the Tigers quick-footed defensive unit if the Irish are caught behind the chains on second and third down.
3 – Don’t Think, Just Throw: As noted in our game reviews, Kizer excelled on third down vs. both Georgia Tech and UMass. The same holds true for two-minute situations (end-game Virginia and end-half UMass) where he was a combined 10-15 with two touchdowns in his pair of two-minute drill opportunities, and 9-13 (seven conversions) in third down passing situations over the last two outings.
Both his head coach and by his own admission, Kizer’s passing mechanics remain a work in progress. But why then does he shine when faced with additional stressors such as third down and an obvious pass or an expiring clock?
“I've always said it's all about being comfortable. The couple balls I've had in the last few games that were low and away were me just being too tense or something in the lower half of my body that is not really working,” Kizer said. “I've been doing a pretty good job of attacking those things in practice the last couple of weeks, and I've been ripping the ball pretty good. So hopefully they'll eventually be eliminated.
“When my mind is elsewhere and I'm not really focusing on getting the ball out to where I should be getting it out, sometimes you have flaws, and I'm a big guy with a chance of being a big motion, and when I elongate everything, there's a greater chance of error.”
In other words, Bull Durham’s Nuke LaLoosh said it best: “Don’t think, just throw.”
4 – The Dynamic Duo: Both Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell appear at full strength after four games, which means Notre Dame has a chance to be stout up front in Game Five Saturday night. With Day and Rochell leading the charge, the Irish defense can control scrimmage, at least against an opponent’s running game. Without? All bets are off. The pair makes those around them, especially playmaker Joe Schmidt and everybody’s All-American Jaylon Smith far more effective.
Asked how long he and Rochell could carry the load – i.e., every relevant snap in every close game played to date and hereafter – Day offered, “I guess we'll see, Coach (Paul) Longo has done a great job with us, just making us kind of push ourselves to the next level, and making sure that we're giving everything we have on each and every play.”
Day and Rochell own the advantage against Clemson’s offensive interior.
5 – Welcome to the Playoffs: Well, not exactly, but the spoils of playoff poll position will be afforded the winner Saturday night, especially if the sixth-ranked Irish prevail in what will be perceived as their toughest road test. What have the undefeated Irish proven to date? They can run it and stop the run, and they’re battle tested thanks to a comeback in Charlottesville and a visit from vexing Georgia Tech thereafter.
“I know this: it's a close team,” said Kelly. “They'll play hard for each other. There's no quit in them. They'll overcome adversity. I think they'll go on the road, and they'll battle for four quarters. I think I know that about them. We're still playing some young players that are not experienced in certain areas. So that has to continue to grow. But I think I know more about the grit, determination, and character.
“I think we still have to continue to grow as a football team on the field relative to specific skill positions. Quarterback is certainly still one of them. And we still have to find ourselves more consistent in the back end of our defense.”
Each element among Kelly’s questions is likely to be put to the test against Clemson, a team with which not much is certain, either. It’s a contest that will come down to the wire between two programs that believe they’re among the nation’s best.
“Everyone’s elite once you get here,” said Kizer of the step up in competition he’s witnessed as a collegiate starter.
Only one team will remain among the elite after 60 minutes Saturday night.