Notre Dame has completed an undefeated regular season and now face their first and perhaps only conference championship appearance in program history.
Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers were perfect outside their stumble in South Bend, and will bring a few players to Charlotte who weren’t on the field for that game. Most notably, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and linebacker James Skalski will suit up for the rematch. The Irish will need to be sharp to overcome these gains for Clemson, and we have the stats to show how they can pull another upset. For a primer on the stats we explain in this preview, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
The Tigers were not fully healthy in South Bend for the last matchup, and they will not be fully healthy for this game either because it is their eleventh game of tackle football.
Linebacker Jake Venables did an admirable job filling in for the injured Skalski, but Venables himself is now out with a broken arm. Skalski is back in the Tigers lineup, but has not played much in two months and may not be at 100 percent. Even without Skalski, the Tigers have had the highest graded Pro Football Focus linebacker play of any Power 5 team this season at 90.0.
While getting Skalski back and healthy would boost their defense, it’s unclear how much their linebacker play can even be improved. Tyler Davis, who has received heavy praise from Clemson pundits, will be active for this game as well. While he is a solid starter, he only has a 72.2 PFF grade and is pretty average against the pass and run. He is not someone that will keep Irish fans up at night.
This healthier Tiger defense will be up against a Notre Dame offense that has been excellent throwing the football. The Irish average 0.23 EPA/pass, with a 48.1 percent success rate that is in the top twenty nationally. The Tigers will bring an elite pass defense to the table, although Book was able to find room against them in the first matchup and has been a different quarterback from that game on. He’s PFF’s 3rd highest graded quarterback since the Georgia Tech game, with only Kyle Trask and Sam Howell posting a higher grade.
Ian Book is the reason this offense is moving. While we may not agree with Dabo that he has some Joe Montana in him, we believe Book needs to be given every opportunity to win this game.
Book was incredibly composed in the last matchup considering the Tigers blitzed 55 percent of the time. Despite the high blitz rate, Book was only pressured on 31.9 percent of drop backs as a result of getting the ball out early and attacking the 0-9 yard range left open by blitzers. On the season, Book has posted a borderline-elite 88.9 PFF Grade on non-pressured throws. He needs to be trusted to go win this game, whether it’s throwing these quick routes again if Clemson chooses to dial up pressure or sitting back and pushing the ball further downfield if he’s afforded more time.
The first Clemson game was Avery Davis’ best game of the season according to PFF, and it was the first game where he showed off his ability to go deep. Targeting Davis has been about as efficient as targeting Skowronek and McKinley, yet he only played 31 snaps against Syracuse to Javon McKinley’s 62. Braden Lenzy appears to be eating into Davis’ workload, getting 17 snaps in the season finale. Davis has established himself as one of Notre Dame’s most efficient options, and we are hoping that this downturn in playing time was just because the Irish were facing an inferior opponent. The Irish need to focus on getting their best players the football this weekend, and Davis is one of those players. With Lenzy no longer on the two deep depth chart this week, hopefully this means Davis will be involved early and often.
Back to that 55 percent blitz rate. While Book was able to counter it with short passing, it rendered the Irish run game completely useless outside of the long run on their first drive. Williams was held to a putrid -0.87 EPA/rush in the second half of the first game. While running to establish (*shudders*) the threat of play action is important, the Irish barely ran play action in the first game and hurt themselves massively by insisting on running late in the game. If Clemson deploys a similar game plan, the Irish simply have to throw the football more and utilize play action. The Tigers have just the 35th ranked pass rush in the country, and the Irish need to trust that their offensive line — which boasts a 13th ranked pass block grade — will be able to take care of business and give Book time to operate. If the Tigers routinely drop eight in coverage, then absolutely run the football often with Kyren and take advantage of the open space. But we would be shocked if they choose to play that way. The Irish are more efficient throwing than running on all downs, and need to do default into letting Book cook on at least 60 percent of early downs until Clemson stops bringing so much pressure.
Trevor Lawrence is back for the Tigers, and while he obviously lifts their entire offense, it may not be by as much as some expect. DJ Uiagalelei was spectacular in the first matchup to the point where it is uncertain how much Lawrence can even improve upon it. However, the two areas where Lawrence can improve on Uiagalelei’s performance are dialing up more deep balls and just throwing more. Despite unworldly efficiency, Uiagalelei only threw four deep balls in the first Clemson game. Lawrence has gone deep 17 percent of the time this season, and the Irish have been extremely vulnerable to deep passing. This could be the fatal flaw of this Notre Dame team, especially with the offenses coming up in this game and a likely playoff appearance.
Clemson felt they had to protect Uiagalelei by running with Travis Etienne, and the Irish were incredibly stout against this. Etienne had nowhere to go, and he has not been great on the season as a whole either. Clemson has just the 43rd most efficient ground game, not awful but far worse than a team with a future NFL running back would expect. Their offensive line is just 36th in the country in run blocking grade according to Pro Football Focus, and we see no reason to think they’re going to finally put it together against an elite run defense like Notre Dame’s. But, Lawrence’s presence may encourage them to throw much more than they did in the first game. So even if Lawrence only matches Uiagalelei’s efficiency or even falls short, just throwing more will substantially increase the offense’s overall efficiency.
If the Tigers lean more heavily on Lawrence and continue to run play action, they could put real stress on this Irish defense. If we were Dabo Swinney, we would be dialing up play action and attacking an aggressive Irish defense over the top. It’s funny to type this, but Notre Dame fans should be hoping for a heavy dose of Etienne because the Irish are up to the task of keeping him in check yet again. If the Irish defense is going to be beaten, make them do it with their running back rather than their elite quarterback.
Notre Dame is once again underdogs here. When you’re taking on Clemson, Alabama, or Ohio State, those schools just recruit at a different level and are playing a different sport than everyone else. This is an excellent Irish team, but their inability to run the football in the first game looms large, and we believe the Irish may be too stubborn to let any early failure deter them from continuing to run into stacked boxes. In addition, Lawrence will put spectacular pressure on Notre Dame’s suspect deep pass defense. If the Irish put this game in Book’s hands, limit deep passing against, and run the ball more effectively, they will have an excellent chance to win. But if Clemson is blitzing successfully and the Irish insist on trying to get Kyren Williams going, they might put themselves in an early deficit they can’t dig themselves out of. While the 10.5 point spread and +300 straight up odds you can get on Notre Dame are both spectacular values, we’re going to take Clemson 37-30.