Ahhh yes. It’s once again conference championship week in college football, folks, meaning it’s once again time for our beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team to sit back, relax, and watch teams duke it out to be conference champions while they sit idle, having already completed their regular season.
*OFD Site Manager, Emperor, & Supreme Warlord Joshua Vowles whispers into my ear, and you see genuine shock on my face as what he’s whispering isn’t the typical sweet nothings he sends me over Slack*
What? ND is doing WHAT this weekend???
Um...my apologies, folks. Apparently our #2 Irish are...do I have this right? They’re PLAYING in a conference championship game? That can’t be right.
Welp, I guess I’m wrong. Indeed, our favorite NCAA football squad — temporary members of the Atlantic Coast Conference this season due to that pesky little COVID-19 — are facing off against the #3 Clemson Tigers on Saturday afternoon to decide the 2020 ACC Championship.
That should be pretty fun to watch, especially considering what happened the last time these two programs met, all those days ago in early November. You probably barely remember — let me jog your memory.
This time, though, the Tigers have a few more talented guys who’ll be available to play. LB James Skalski and DT Tyler Davis will certainly make the Clemson defense a tougher test, and I’m being told — wait, this can’t be right either — that the QB they now have back is somehow...BETTER than that mini-Cam Newton who threw for 400+ yards on one of the best defenses in the country???
Considering those changes, I knew we needed to talk to an expert about what might happen this time around with these healthier, deeper Tigers. So, I reached back out to our friends over at Shakin The Southland, and Tom Dianora was generous enough to answer a wide array of questions we had for him, including everything from Trevor Lawrence’s return, to how Clemson can better contain Ian Book, to whether Matt Salerno will continue to dominate in his role as punt returner, to which Clemson players would help in a Home Alone situation, and more!
Let’s get into it, Tom’s got some good stuff for us.
1. What were your thoughts/takeaways from the Clemson side on the first meeting between these two teams? Were you surprised the Irish played so well, even with a number of Clemson guys out?
I’ll be honest — knowing ND’s recent history against top teams, I was a bit surprised myself that they actually pulled out the victory, even with Clemson’s missing starters.
Tom Dianora: The end result overall was not too surprising to me, given the key player absences for Clemson, as you mention. What did shock me, though, was that the Tigers blew the game late. They battled back, showed the heart of a champion, and took the lead late in a game where they were clearly not at their best, both in terms of players dressed and on-field execution. But they led 33-26 with under two minutes to go in regulation, and had the ball. Their play-calling and clock management on that possession were extremely frustrating, as they could have sealed the game there.
Even then, though, I was confident Clemson would come up with one last stop...but they didn’t. I’ve become accustomed to Clemson getting the job done in clutch situations like that, so to see it go the other way was a pretty big shock to me. I have to give credit to Ian Book and the Irish for driving down and getting the touchdown, but it felt like Clemson let a win slip away. (To be fair, that would have been a steal of a victory for the Tigers based on their prior struggles and miscues in the game.)
My biggest takeaway coming out of the game was that Clemson’s run blocking was indeed as bad as I had feared, but that the Tigers would be fine overall moving forward as guys in other areas got healthy. I figured the offensive line would slowly improve in run blocking, and I suppose it has...very slowly. I also looked forward to a potential rematch with a healthier Clemson team, and here we are.
2. Obviously this time around, the Tigers will have Trevor Lawrence under center. What does he bring to the table that DJ Uiagalelei — a true freshman capable of throwing for 400+ yards and 2 TDs in the first match-up — simply doesn’t provide yet? And how do you think Tony Elliott’s game plan will change with the All-American QB running his offense again?
Tom Dianora: Lawrence brings big-game experience and familiarity/comfort with his receivers. Besides his big arm (which Uiagalelei certainly has as well), Lawrence also brings more of a running threat; I was hoping Clemson would use Uiagalelei in the running game more on Nov. 7, but it turned out that he still had a sore shoulder at that time, so Clemson did not want to push him with respect to running the ball.
With Lawrence, though, I expect to see a decent number of zone-read plays, as Lawrence, despite his size, is deceptively fast, and a smart runner. The threat of Lawrence running should open up other parts of the offense.
It’s hard to complain at all about Uiagalelei’s performance on Nov. 7; he set an all-time record for most single-game passing yards against Notre Dame, and was the biggest reason why Clemson had a chance to win the game. That being said, there were a couple of key throws he missed, that I would expect Lawrence to make in the same types of situations (e.g., key third downs).
3. On Nov. 7, Travis Etienne was held to just 28 yards rushing on 18 carries (1.6 ypc), and 85 total yards on 26 total touches. Do you anticipate a better game from him (and the Clemson offensive line), especially with Lawrence back to split the defense’s focus a bit more? Or are there other skill position guys ND fans should be more worried about — if so, whom?
Tom Dianora: I do anticipate a better game, even if that’s only because he can’t have a much worse game. As I mentioned previously, run blocking has been a problem for Clemson’s offensive line all year. They have generally been fine in pass protection, but they struggle in the running game. So I pin most of Etienne’s struggles on that, although 1) ball security has been a bit of an issue with him this season, as you saw on Nov. 7, and 2) I worry that he’s in a bit of a slump mentally, and that that is affecting his rushing.
Do the offensive line’s struggles have him “seeing ghosts” and not being as instinctual as a runner? Who’s to say. Nevertheless, I expect him to show up and have a major positive impact on this game, and for Clemson to look for him in the passing game often as well, to get him out into space. That part of his game is better this year than ever before.
Of course, part of Etienne’s success on Saturday will hinge on an improved performance from the offensive line. It’s a bad matchup for that group against Notre Dame’s defensive front, but I think that an enhanced focus, along with the threat of the QB run game, will lead to a noticeably better performance from the Tigers on the ground, even if it’s not spectacular.
Besides Etienne and Lawrence, I would look for continued heavy doses of wide receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. I was hopeful that one or both of sophomore wideouts Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata would be back from injuries and ready for Saturday, but that’s looking dicey at best. If one plays, it will probably be Ladson, and if so, he could offer a nice wrinkle in the downfield passing game.
Lastly, I say this every week, but I am still looking for Clemson to use tight ends (Braden Galloway and Davis Allen, the latter of whom had a touchdown in the prior game against Notre Dame) more consistently in the passing game, particularly over the middle of the field.
4. The Clemson defense really struggled to shut down Kyren “Bellyman” Williams on the ground in Game 1 (140 yds, 6.1 ypc, 3 TD). What, if anything, will Clemson do differently this time to slow the Notre Dame running game down, and will ND’s loss of C Jarrett Patterson and Clemson getting guys like Tyler Davis and James Skalski back be major game-changers? How successful do you think ND will be running the ball on Saturday?
Tom Dianora: They sure did! I was very impressed with Williams, both with his rushing abilities and his blocking in pass protection. I think the biggest thing Clemson will do differently is dress Davis, Skalski, and linebacker Mike Jones, Jr.
The presence of Davis on the defensive line in particular will have both direct and indirect effects on that front’s ability to both limit the running attack and get after Ian Book a bit more than they did previously. I also think the absence of Patterson, as you mention, will be somewhat of a factor, but not as much as Clemson getting these three players back.
I think the Irish will have their moments running the ball on Saturday and not be completely stifled, but I would expect less success than they had in the first matchup between these teams.
5. The other major problem for Brent Venables’ group in the first match-up was containing Ian Book — they only sacked him twice, and his ability to scramble allowed him to really do some damage and extend key drives with his legs. How can Clemson try to better corral him this time around, and do you think it’ll be effective?
Tom Dianora: Yes, indeed. As Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney said, “He’s quicker than what you want him to be.” Besides having the aforementioned defenders being back in the lineup, I think the Tigers will have to set a spy for Book on a consistent basis.
Perhaps Skalski or Jones could take on this responsibility. Jones is an excellent coverage linebacker, so personally, I think he would be a good fit, as he has enough quickness to stay with the elusive and quicker-than-what-you-want-him-to-be Book.
Similar to what I think will transpire with Williams and Notre Dame’s overall running game, I think Clemson will do a better job of containing Book this time around, but that doesn’t mean Book won’t have a few moments.
6. Since I get asked it essentially every week, I’d love to turn this question back on the opposing site for a change: what are Clemson fans’ thoughts about Notre Dame temporarily playing in the ACC? Do y’all like having them in the conference this year? Do you want ND to join permanently? And does the Irish’s insistence on keeping independence rub you the wrong way or make you upset?
Tom Dianora: I don’t know if I speak for all Clemson fans, but I would be good with Notre Dame joining the ACC full-time. The “independent” label makes it seem like they’re special, so I think it’s time that they join a conference like most other teams that have goals to consistently contend on a national level. The Irish’s insistence on remaining independent does seem a bit snooty to me. It also often adds to College Football Playoff controversy, since they do not play a conference championship game.
Notre Dame being added to the ACC on a full-time basis would also boost the overall quality of football in the conference and give Clemson a solid in-conference opponent each year (or every few years, depending on divisional setup—although if Notre Dame were to join the ACC full-time, I think the powers that be would have to ensure an annual matchup with Clemson, as this is a budding rivalry between two powerhouses).
Lastly, if Notre Dame wins this Saturday and then goes back to being independent for the foreseeable future, the Irish and their fans perpetually having the claim of being one-for-one in ACC championships would really annoy me, haha.
7. FAN QUESTION:
Will Clemson be able to contain Matt Salerno? He only had 1 punt return for 5 yards in the first matchup, but since then he’s been on fire, with returns of 7, even 8 yards.— Pat C (@iamthetweeter) December 14, 2020
Tom Dianora: This was my initial reaction to this question. But we’ll see...if Salerno continues his dominance in the punt return game and breaks one off for nine yards, Clemson could be in trouble.
8. Festive Question Alert: The Wet Bandits are attempting to rob your suburban home while your entire family has left for vacation without you. Which 3 Clemson players do you choose to help you defend the family home with a series of hilarious and murderous-if-this-were-real-life booby traps? Please explain your reasoning for each choice, and also whether or not you and the crew will ultimately need the elderly neighbor — who may or may not be the South Bend Shovel Slayer — to come by and save you from the bandits in the end.
Tom Dianora: Ha! I probably don’t really need help, not because I’d be incredibly skilled in this situation, but because the Wet Bandits are idiots. Having said that, I’d go with Bryan Bresee, K.J. Henry, and Darien Rencher.
Bresee, if the booby traps don’t stymie Harry and Marv, is a huge, athletic defensive tackle (and last year’s No. 1 recruit per 247Sports) who could physically crush the Wet Bandits if that’s what it came down to. Henry seems to be a real Renaissance man beyond his football exploits, as he can make some mean homemade ravioli, among other things.* So our squad could definitely make use of that type of versatility, creativity, and ingenuity in setting the booby traps. Lastly, Rencher was this year’s winner of the Disney Spirit Award, so his leadership and positive attitude would be immensely beneficial.
With this trio plus yours truly, we have the Wet Bandits defeated from all angles. I really don’t see the need for the elderly neighbor/South Bend Shovel Slayer to help us, but it’s good to know he’s there as insurance.
*Pat Rick Editor’s Note: this is the second time in as many Q&As with as many STS writers that K.J. Henry’s homemade ravioli has been brought up. I need him to host a cooking show with his teammates like I need air to breathe.
9. Okay, prediction time: who wins, what is the score, and show your work.
Tom Dianora: Immediately coming out of the Nov. 7 double-overtime loss to Notre Dame, I felt that if Clemson could almost win that game while shorthanded and despite making some brutal mistakes, then the Tigers would win rather handily in a rematch, assuming they would be healthier.
Now that time has arrived; sure, the Tigers are not fully healthy, but A) is anyone at this time of year? and B) they are in much better shape this time around, with numerous key players returning this time. But Notre Dame has seemingly improved coming out of that game on Nov. 7, particularly Book and the offense.
So, at this point, I don’t think it will be an absolute blowout, but I do think that Clemson will ultimately pull away and win this one. Lawrence and Etienne will create a more effective rushing attack with the zone-read game, Lawrence will also do damage through the air, and the defense will have a more consistent effort in containing Book and the Irish’s running game, even though they won’t be perfect.
Clemson 35, Notre Dame 24
BONUS CONTENT: PAT RICK PICKS HIS FAVORITE NAMES
Due to some of the...lacking...answers provided to me early in the season, and because asking this question every week is 75% just for me anyway, I chose to not bother Tom with this question and instead just give you my personal favorite names on the Tigers roster.
PLOT TWIST: I already did that back in November with Ryan Kantor. So, I decided to make it a full “Best Names in the Game” list instead, adding ND players and opening it up to both staffs as well. There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great names in these two programs, so please enjoy my Top 30 names and a BUNCH of honorable mentions to boot:
- Clemson QB Taisun Phommachanh
- Clemson WR Ajou Ajou
- Notre Dame RB C’Bo Flemister
- Clemson Director of Football Projects & External Affairs — Thad Turnispeed
- Clemson Defensive Ends Coach — Lemanski Hall
- Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
- Clemson DT Ruke Orhorhoro
- Notre Dame LS Axel Raarup
- Notre Dame S Litchfield Ajavon
- Clemson DT Etinosa Reuben
- Clemson RB Lyn-J Dixon
- Clemson S Lannden Zanders
- Clemson RB Chez Mellusi
- Notre Dame OL Hunter Spears
- Notre Dame DL Ovie Oghoufo
- Clemson DL DeMonte Capehart
- Clemson WR Hamp Greene
- Notre Dame DL Giovanni Ghilotti
- Clemson Assistant Director of Football Video Operations — Jayse McQuaig
- Clemson LB Baylon Spector
- Notre Dame DL Nana Osafo-Mensah
- Notre Dame Analyst, Special Teams — Asauni Rufus
- Clemson WR Hampton Earle
- Clemson TE Sage Ennis
- Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei
- Notre Dame DL Adetokunbo Ogundeji
- Clemson Head Coach — Dabo Swinney
- Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong
- Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
- Notre Dame DL Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Honorable Mention, Clemson: TE J.C. Chalk, QB Hunter Helms, CB Mario Goodrich, OL Walker Parks, OL Paul Tchio, OT Jackson Carman, LB Mike Jones Jr., S Bubba McAtee, OL Mac Cranford, DT Nyles Pinckney, Director of Football Coaching Video Henry Guess
Honorable Mention, Notre Dame: LB Marist Liufau, PK Dawson Goepferich, LB Osita Ekwonu, DL Alexander Ehrensberger, DL Aidan Keanaaina, DL Zane Heemsoth, TE George Takacs, TE Michael Mayer, CB TaRiq Bracy, OL Zeke Correll, LB Jack Lamb, Senior Staff Assistant Joy McCausland, Assistant Director of Football Operations Tyler Plantz
I wanna give a massive shout-out to Tom for answering all my questions — especially for his thoughtful response to my Home Alone scenario.
Make sure you head over to Shakin The Southland to check out Tom’s work along with the rest of the STS crew, serving up any and all key insights you’ll need about the Irish’s ACCCG opponent this week. You can even check out my ramblings answering Tom’s Q&A while you’re there!
Also, make sure to toss both the site and Tom some follows on Twitter — they’re excellent and entertaining folks and can provide you with any and all urgent updates on Clemson prior to Saturday’s battle.
That’s all for now, folks — GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!