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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

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Death Valley. At night. Two undefeated teams. This is college football at its best.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson helmet

Notre Dame (-1) at Clemson

Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina

Kickoff: 8:00 PM ET

Date: Saturday, October 3, 2015

Television: ABC

Series: 1-1-0 Tied

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's night game in Death Valley.

5 Factoids

Welcome to Death Valley

The Tigers are currently enjoying a tremendous run of success inside their home stadium. Since rising to power so to speak beginning with the 2011 season, Clemson is 28-2 at home and have won their last 11 games inside Memorial Stadium. The two losses came to eventual National Champion Florida State in 2013 and No. 8 South Carolina to end the 2012 regular season.

Howard's Rock & The Hill

If you've watched college football long enough you've seen the Clemson Tigers' entrance into Memorial Stadium. Here's a really good ESPN video of the proceedings that will take place on Saturday.

Good Vibes in Death Valley?

Notre Dame has played only one game at Clemson and that was way back in 1977. In that season the No. 5 ranked Irish beat the No. 15 ranked Tigers overcoming a 10-point deficit in the 4th quarter led by Joe Montana. The Irish would remain 5th in the nation heading into bowl season but after demolishing No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, the Irish were awarded a National Championship.

Strike While the Iron is Hot

Clemson's lone National Title came in 1981 following a 22-15 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Since then, the Tigers have won 10+ games on 8 occasions all coming in 4-season groups. The first came from 1987 to 1990 and saw Clemson win 2 conference titles. The last 4 have come since 2011 and the Tigers have won just the 2011 ACC Title.

A Story of Two Schools

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has deep connections to the University of Alabama. He grew up in a suburb just outside Birmingham and walked-on at Alabama eventually being awarded a scholarship and winning a National Championship with the Tide. After his playing career ended, Swinney stayed with Alabama as a grad assistant for 3 seasons before becoming an assistant for another 5 years. In 2003, Swinney joined Clemson as the receivers coach and became the Tigers recruiting coordinator. Five and a half seasons later he took over as head coach from Tommy Bowden and is now the 4th most tenured coach in the ACC.

4 Players to Watch

QB Deshaun Watson

The rising sophomore star came into the season as a darkhorse Heisman candidate after an impressive but injury filled 2014. So far it's been early but Watson has looked human playing behind a shaky offensive line. Last season, he threw only 2 interceptions on 137 attempts and already has 3 picks on 78 throws this year. Be that as it may, Watson has the total package: good size (6-2, 210), accurate passer (70.2% career completions), and can scoot (293 career rushing yards).

It's difficult to assess Watson as this is only his 9th career start but he has the potential to be the best quarterback Notre Dame faces this season.

WR Artavis Scott

Originally scheduled to be part of a dynamic duo at receiver for Clemson before Mike Williams (57 receptions, 1,030 yards, 6 TD last year) was injured in the opener. Now, Scott has taken up the extra work and has produced 20 receptions, 188 yards, and 2 touchdowns through 3 games. He's more of a slot-type athlete but Clemson can move him around and get him the ball in different ways, including in special teams.

Clemson 5 Factors

Clemson 5 Factors

Notre Dame 5 Factors

ND 5 Factors Clemson

DE Shaq Lawson

If you've read anything about Clemson prior to today you'll know they lost nearly every starter and/or impact player in their front seven from last year. However, one player who is back is junior weak-side defensive end Shaq Lawson. You know how Notre Dame struggles finding a true pass rusher? We wouldn't have that problem with Lawson on our squad. He'll only be making his 5th career start this weekend but he's played a lot in his career with 16.5 TFL since the beginng of 2014.

CB Mackensie Alexander

At one time Alexander was the top Irish corner target for the 2013 class but he continued the modern tradition of picking Clemson when Notre Dame was heavily in the mix--and even considered his leader at one point. Now a redshirt sophomore, he'll be tasked with trying to slow down Will Fuller. It's going to be a tremendous matchup to watch.

3 Concerns

Getting Down by 2 Scores

Obviously, you never WANT to get down by more than 7 points in a big road game like this. Yet, there has to be some uneasiness on how the Irish would react offensively, with a young quarterback, if they were to get down in this game. Now, most coaches throw more than run when they get down. Let's just keep that in mind.

So far this season the Irish haven't been down for very long but they did throw the ball 12 times to 3 runs when suffering a deficit. Although, to be fair most of that discrepancy was due to the final drive against Virginia. The ground game has been phenomenal this year, can the Irish stay balanced if they get behind on the scoreboard?

Turnovers

Typically, we're concerned with not coughing the ball up but the Irish have been solid this season with only 2 interceptions and 1 fumble through 4 games. Perhaps the bigger worry should be on defense where Notre Dame has only forced 3 turnovers--and just 1 interception.

Giving Watson Too Much Time

Someone is going to have to step up on defense this weekend. Either the blitzes are going to have to be effective and bother Watson, or the secondary is going to have to cover a lot better than they have this season. I don't know which is more likely at this point. Probably the former due to Clemson's offensive line.

2 Sides of the Line

Clemson's line is still in flux a little bit and if there's a major weakness for a program at the level of Clemson right now it's right here.

Starting at left tackle is true freshman Mitch Hyatt (6-5, 295), the first frosh to do so for Clemson in over 60 years. Next to him at guard is 5th-year senior Eric Mac Lain (6-5, 315) who will be making his 5th career start on Saturday. At center, another 5th-year senior in Ryan Norton made all but one start last year but is out this weekend due to injury. In his place, redshirt junior Jay Guillermo (6-3, 325) will be making his 3rd career start.

At right guard the Tigers have turned to redshirt sophomore Tyrone Crowder (6-2, 330) who made one start last year and is making career start 5 on Saturday. Both of Clemson's right tackles were injured against Louisville. Fifth-year senior Joe Gore (6-6, 300) started the first 3 games last year but was benched. He's started the first 3 games again in 2015 and is healthy for the weekend. His backup is true freshman Jake Fruhmorgen (6-6, 280) and he is healthy again for the Irish, as well.

We already mentioned Shaq Lawson (6-3, 270) as the starting weak-side defensive end. He'll be backed up by former Notre Dame commit and redshirt freshman Richard Yeargin (6-3, 255) who is still obviously really inexperienced not having played last week against Louisville.

Starting on the strong edge is redshirt junior Kevin Dodd (6-5, 275) who's in his first-year starting and has 13 tackles and 2.5 TFL so far in 2015. Behind him is true freshman Austin Bryant (6-4, 265) and he's got his feet wet quickly with 11 tackles this year.

On the interior, redshirt junior Carlos Watkins (6-3, 300) played a decent amount from 2013-14 and is now starting for the first time with 2 TFL and 1 sack. At the other tackle spot, redshirt sophomore Scott Pagano (6-3, 295) has also earned his first career starts this year and has 1 TFL.

Several other bodies across the line are capable of playing including highly touted true freshmen Albert Huggins (6-4, 295) and Christian Wilkins (6-4, 315) plus redshirt freshman Jabril Robinson (6-2, 280) and 5th-year senior Roderick Byers (6-3, 295).

1 Prediction

A lot of money came in for Notre Dame this week turning the Irish from 2.5-point underdogs into a favorite in some places. Typical case of that large national following pouring money into the casinos or did a lot of people take a look around and notice Clemson's best win might not be a 1-3 Louisville team but Appalachian State and the Tigers have their own injuries to worry about in addition to a bunch of new starters?

For several months I pegged this game as a loss for Notre Dame. Here's how they could win, though.

STAT IRISH TIGERS
F/+ 9 4
S&P 12 6
FEI 8 5

Clemson's iffy offensive line and missing the injured Mike Williams could make the Tigers a lot more one-dimensional on offense that they'd like to be. No doubt, they'll have success getting to the edges on runs and with Watson getting the ball out quickly into the hands of playmakers. But can they open up things downfield and run for tough yards in between the tackles on a consistent basis?

On the other side of the ball the Irish could have a leg up with their strong run game. In a close game knowing you can lean on that Notre Dame offensive line and an emerging superstar like C.J. Prosise at running back can pay dividends. If the forecast holds up for a lot of rain this could potentially turn into a huge advantage for the Irish.

Clemson is a tough team to get a hold of, especially this early in the season without having seen them face a really good team yet. They are obviously talented but as we remarked in our summer preview there are a lot of new pieces and starters all over the place--that's dangerous or at least troubling for an early out of conference Top 15 showdown.

Here's why I'm staying with Clemson to win...

Watson versus Kizer is a rather sizable advantage for Clemson at the quarterback position. We might have an advantage on the lines but that's out-sized by the quarterback disparity, in my opinion.

Clemson will likely do a good job limiting Notre Dame's running game. We're not running for 300 yards. We may not run for 200 yards. Can this Irish offense win with less than that?

Death Valley is going to be crazy and Clemson's track record there is impressive. Enough said.

There's a chance Notre Dame wrecks Clemson's offensive line and finds just enough success running the ball to roll to a big road victory. But I just can't get over thinking about all those blitzes not getting home and Watson picking on the Irish secondary, plus the Irish offense putting too much on Kizer when they find some difficulties on the ground.

With the weather, the atmosphere, and everything else I'm betting on a low-scoring affair.

Notre Dame 20

Clemson 23