It’s been an incredibly boring week, folks — but luckily, the biggest regular season game of the season is just two days away for your #4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team.
The Irish host the #1 Clemson Tigers on Saturday evening, and the biggest news here is that the Tigers will be without All-American QB Trevor Lawrence, who missed last week and now this week due to contracting COVID-19.
True freshman QB D.J. Uiagalelei started in his place last Saturday against the Boston College Eagles, and despite a slow start that saw BC jump out to a 28-10 lead, Uiagalelei threw for 342 yards and 2 touchdowns while running for another, and Travis Etienne accounted for 224 yards and a couple TDs to help drive the 34-28 comeback win.
Now, the 7-0 Tigers come to South Bend on an unseasonably warm weekend for a top-5 match-up with the 6-0 Irish in what may very well be a preview of the ACC Championship Game. So with so many moving pieces and two top-5 teams butting heads, what should we know about this Clemson opponent???
I reached out to Ryan Kantor at Shakin The Southland, SB Nation’s Clemson site, and asked him all about Uiagalelei, the Clemson running game, how Clemson plans to attack Tommy Rees’ offense, what conditioner Trevor Lawrence uses for that feathered AND lethal hair, and more.
Let’s dive right in and arm ourselves with knowledge ahead of the biggest regular season game in Notre Dame Stadium since probably 2005!
1. I guess I have to start with asking about the Trevor Lawrence/COVID situation: obviously the Tigers are unreal with Lawrence at QB, but how good can the Clemson offense be with D.J. Uiagalelei under center this Saturday (especially based on what you saw against BC last weekend)? Does the strategy/play-calling change significantly with a freshman at the helm? Is there anything Uiagalelei brings to the table that Lawrence does not, or anything he actually does better than Lawrence?
Ryan Kantor: Folks just watching the scoreboard may assume DJ Uiagalelei took a while to get his feet under him, but that really wasn’t the case. The Tigers were right about to tie the game at 14-14 in the closing seconds of the first quarter when a fumbled handoff at the goal line turned into a 99-yard fumble return TD. QB struggles weren’t the issue that caused the Tigers to fall behind.
Once the Tigers faced an 18-point deficit and saw that Boston College was focused on stopping Clemson’s rushing attack, the training wheels came off and they let DJ air it out. He has a strong arm and is incredibly poised. He didn’t throw many deep passes, but it is hard to know if that was because it wasn’t there or because it isn’t his strong-suit. He missed on a couple out routes, which is something Clemson loves running with Trevor Lawrence, but overall was fairly accurate. One thing he brings that Lawrence does not, is the ability to run simple QB powers in short yardage situations. The mere threat of that opens up a lot of possibilities.
2. I’m a massive Travis Etienne fan, and incredibly worried about what he’s capable of doing on Saturday, even with the Irish defense looking strong so far (albeit against bad competition). Where do you see Etienne and the Clemson running game excelling on Saturday, and to what degree? Do you think the Irish will be able to slow him down/contain him?
Ryan Kantor: I am actually quite concerned that Notre Dame will gum up Clemson’s running game. The Tigers have struggled in run blocking the past two weeks and Notre Dame will bring a whole different level of competition. OC Tony Elliott is creative enough that he will find other ways to get his best player the ball if that’s the case (Etienne had 7 receptions for 140 yards vs. Boston College).
Still, there could be a lot of pressure on DJ Uiagalelei if they have to move the ball primarily through the air. Perhaps DJ being a threat to run the ball could open up opportunities for Etienne, but I think Clemson may need to do the majority of its damage through the air despite having the best running back in ACC history.
More broadly, this represents the biggest concern with the offense as we look at navigating the postseason and claiming the program’s third National Championship of the playoff-era.
3. With Justyn Ross missing the entire season and Etienne and Lawrence being the other big names from seasons past, who are the lesser-known/new offensive skill guys whom Irish fans should be aware of (and afraid of)?
Ryan Kantor: Senior WR Amari Rodgers has really stepped up and given the Tigers a #1 receiver. He tore his ACL before last season and returned to contribute, but not at this level. He’s really surpassed my expectations and helped alleviate what otherwise would have been a big area of weaknesses at wide receiver.
The others are the tight ends: Braden Galloway and Davis Allen. Clemson’s offense is so much less predictable with players who can attack over the middle and after several years without a serious receiving threat at TE, both of these guys are delivering.
4. It’s no secret that the Irish offense is fairly unbalanced, with a good running game and an underwhelming passing attack. How do you see Brent Venables’ squad approaching this match-up?
Ryan Kantor: I think both Clemson and Notre Dame should consider stacking the box and forcing the opposing QB to beat them. Clemson’s secondary has been solid and Notre Dame’s top pass catchers from 2019 are gone. I think the Tigers will (and should) make Ian Book beat them through the air.
Notre Dame is likely to employ the same strategy. Clemson has the best running back in ACC history, Travis Etienne. Meanwhile, the receiving corps isn’t what it was when these teams faced off in the Cotton Bowl two years ago. On top of that, Trevor Lawrence is out for COVID-19 protocol. I expect them to prioritize stopping the run and make Clemson beat them through the air with a freshman QB and a WR corps that has been as stellar as years past.
5. FAN QUESTION:
Have Clemson fans been looking forward to this game as much as ND fans? Or does the regular season not matter to them anymore— Chris Dearolf (@phillychris32) November 1, 2020
Ryan Kantor: Very much so. As you’re learning this season, being in the ACC puts you in a great position to earn a playoff slot. It also brings its fair share of games against teams like Virginia and Syracuse that just aren’t that exciting.
Notre Dame is a legit top 5 team and a huge brand name. This game has been circled on the calendar for over a year.
6. FAN QUESTION:
What conditioner does Lawrence use?— Vannzee (@thevannzee) November 1, 2020
Ryan Kantor: That one is up to the sponsors at the NFL-level to share.
7. Festive question now that it’s officially November: if you forgot to do your grocery shopping for Thanksgiving dinner and needed to assemble a crew of 3-5 current Clemson players to send to the supermarket at the last minute to navigate crazy crowds and pick up all the supplies and ingredients quickly and efficiently, whom would you choose and what would be their roles?
Ryan Kantor: I don’t know about all that, but based on the Clemson vlog I know that DE K.J. Henry can make some mean homemade ravioli. Italian food for Thanksgiving is a power move I support, so take that for what you will.
8. Prediction time: who do you think wins, what is the score, and explain your reasoning.
Ryan Kantor: Two years ago you and I did a Q&A, and I predicted a 28-17 Clemson victory. The first commenter (“Devil’s Reject”) said this was the “best offense/defense combo Clemson has seen all year, and you say we won’t eclipse 17 points. ARE YOU INSANE?” Clemson ended up winning 30-3.
I was leaning towards going back to the well and picking 28-17 again or perhaps 24-17 - either way a Clemson win. Wednesday’s injury update on DT Tyler Davis and LB Mike Jones changed that:
“I was hoping that I’d feel good today, but they’re just not quite ready unfortunately. … We were all hopeful they would make enough progress to make it this week, but I just don’t think that’s going to be the case.” - Coach Swinney
With the defense’s most valuable player, DT Tyler Davis, and SAM linebacker Mike Jones out, the unit will be without at least three key starters (the third being middle linebacker James Skalski, who we already knew was out). On top of that, QB Trevor Lawrence and potentially WR Joseph Ngata are out on offense.
It’s hard to be confident in a Clemson win if you believe Notre Dame is for real. Notre Dame hasn’t faced any of the better ACC teams yet (UNC, VT, Miami, BC, or Clemson), but I tend to think they’re a legit top 5 team. With that being the case, I lean toward an Irish win. A Clemson victory would be maybe the most impressive regular season win of the Dabo-era given how short-handed the Tigers will be.
BONUS CONTENT: PAT RICK PICKS HIS FAVORITE NAMES ON THE CLEMSON ROSTER
Due to some of the...lacking...answers provided to me in past weeks, and because asking this question every week is 75% just for me anyway, I chose to not bother Ryan with this question and instead just give you my personal favorite names on the Tigers roster.
Here they are:
- QB Taisun Phommachanh
- WR Ajou Ajou
- RB Chez Mellusi
- DT Ruke Orhorhoro
- WR Hamp Greene
- DT Etinosa Reuben
- LB Baylon Spector
- S Lannden Zanders
- RB Lyn-J Dixon
- DL DeMonte Capehart
- WR Hampton Earle
- TE J.C. Chalk
- QB D.J. Uiagalelei
- TE Sage Ennis
- S Bubba McAtee
Alright, I’d like to give a massive shout-out to Ryan for answering my questions and giving us just enough hope to crush our spirits when Clemson inevitably wins a close one on Saturday — it’s going to be a lovely Notre Dame memory to add to my extensive collection.
That’s it for this week, folks — GO IRISH, BELIEVE IN SOMETHING