*groggily rolls out of bed, wanders to the kitchen to make coffee, then lets the bathroom renovation crew into the apartment before slinking up the stairs to my office*
Man, having that day off yesterday to recover from our friends’ wedding weekend in California was super nice, but I’m preeeettty pissed that it’s already Tuesday and thus it’s time to go back to work. I should have just canceled the W.I.N. call for this week — that was way too ambitious of me to move it to Tuesday due to my PTO, knowing full well I wouldn’t want to deal with it come Tuesday.
Okay, well, at least there’s a pretty positive prior week to discuss and the last somewhat exciting opponent remaining on the calendar to talk about on this spooky Halloween holiday!
*clicks “Join Call” button*
Happy Halloween everyone!
Thank you, yes, I did enjoy my PTO — the wedding was a ton of fun and it was beautiful weather and a gorgeous setting...just a fantastic long weekend all around.
Yeah, definitely still feeling it today — I’m not as young as I used to be, right??
Haha okay, well I think everyone is here who’s going to make it today — can everyone see my screen? I figure we can go ahead and jump into it, as there’s plenty to cover this week.
Perfect, so it’s pretty much the same agenda as always — no need to linger here...
And I know you guys all know what we’re doing here at this point — we’re 9 games into the season after all! I will skip the next couple slides as well.
Alllllrighty, so let’s officially kick off this call in the same way we do every week — reviewing last week’s results to really dig into the positives and negatives of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team’s performance.
As you all know, the Irish hosted a hapless Pittsburgh Panthers team last weekend, and ended up just absolutely routing those goofuses by a final score of 58-7.
As you can imagine, kicking another P5 team’s shit in that emphatically means there were a lot of positives that we can discuss, but instead let’s quickly tackle the negatives first, just to get them out of the way and get to the fun stuff.
Let’s start with by far the biggest negative to come out of Saturday, which is starting tight end Mitchell Evans tearing his ACL, ending his 2023 season. Evans tore it late in the game with the score not at all in doubt, which of course makes you ask “why were those starters still in there?” It’s a fair question, but I also don’t want to sit here and encourage people to blame coaches every time a player gets hurt — unfortunately freak injuries happen and this time the bad luck just hit Mitchell Evans. His dad agrees, by the way, that there’s absolutely no reason to go pointing fingers at the coaching staff:
Mitchell Evans' father weighs in: pic.twitter.com/K8QOsFPEAn— Tyler James (@TJamesND) October 30, 2023
Evans had a fantastic year for the Irish, emerging as not only the #1 tight end (surprising after Holden Staes’ huge game vs. NC State early in the season), but also the #1 receiver and overall target for Sam Hartman in 2023, reeling in 29 passes for 422 yards and a touchdown. He also shined brightest on the biggest stages, putting up 19 catches for 293 yards and a touchdown in that 4-game stretch of all-ranked opponents (Ohio State, @Duke, @Louisville, USC).
So, hats off to Evans on a great season and we wish him a speedy recovery, as whoever starts at QB for the Irish in 2024 is going to want him out there as a security blanket ASAP.
I’d say the other pretty big negative from Saturday was Sam Hartman’s start to the game, showing once again a weird propensity for turning the ball over against specific, weird teams. Louisville already haunted him twice in the last couple seasons, and in the early going it appeared Pitt was going to have a similar effect, picking him off twice in the first two ND possessions of the game.
Hartman and the offense also failed on the next offensive possession to convert on a 4th down from the Pitt 36, meaning the first three offensive possessions resulted in turnovers for the Irish.
Hartman would get things a bit more under control the rest of the way, and especially once the running game started gashing the Nard Dog’s defense, but when you see a 58-7 final score against a team like Pitt who’s usually good against the run but somewhat susceptible to the pass, it’s disappointing to see Hartman’s 18-for-25, 288-yard, 2-INT, 0-TD stat line.
Besides the above, Marcus Freeman had some time management at the end of the first half that maybe wasn’t fantastic, Spencer Shrader managed to miss his first extra point of the season (he’s now 41-for-42), and I think you can still definitely submit a justifiable complaint about the lack of carries/touches for Jadarian Price and Jeremiyah Love, although in this one at least the young backs got a few more opportunities, and at least part of the issue in getting them the ball was that Audric Estime was quite effective on the day. Still, these dudes keep coming up with big plays in their limited PT on offense, and it feels like Gerad Parker needs to find more creative ways to work them onto the field and get them the ball in space.
The Irish as a team also committed 6 penalties, which is neither good nor absolutely horrible, but those 6 penalties were for 75 yards, which is a lot of yards to give away to such an inferior team. That will need to be cleaned up further as the Irish head to Clemson.
Finally, it was a bummer that Benjamin Morrison was banged up and couldn’t play, and also a bummer when Cam Hart went out with an injury fairly early in the game. However, the absence of one of the best cornerback pairs in the country ended up being the first positive I want to talk about today, and that’s the fact that their injuries allowed freshman Christian Gray and sophomore Jaden Mickey to get PLENTY of playing time against a shaky young QB and an unimaginative Pitt offense (to put it charitably), which was the perfect recipe for getting to see the future of the position, which we can all now agree is incredibly bright.
The two young corners didn’t just play a lot of snaps and quietly go about their business, though — they were both awesome and made a few electric plays each. Let’s start with Gray, who was a highly-touted recruit just a year ago and on most ND teams of the recent past would probably have started immediately based on his talent, speed, and skill set coming in.
Instead, he’s gotten to learn and develop behind a couple absolute studs in Morrison and Hart while being coached by rising star Mike Mickens, and he had a fantastic game in coverage while also showing a proclivity for making tackles:
Freshman corner Christian Gray led the defense with 42 total snaps on defense.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 29, 2023
Pitt was 2-7 throwing against him for 30 yards and one interception. He had a passer rating against of 5.4.
He also had four tackles and one stop.
Photo credit: @ISDimagesRick pic.twitter.com/ojNq1dJkJp
Of course, that “one interception” mentioned above wasn’t just any old pick. Nah, Gray decided he needed to make it a little more fun for the first takeaway of his very promising Irish career...
Just an incredible display of athleticism, hands/ball skills, concentration, and length right there — to think ND might be following up the massively successful signing and development of Benjamin Morrison with someone like Gray is just so fun. Can’t wait to see what he does as a potential starter or major contributor next season. It’s clear his teammates are excited for him as well.
Come for phenomenal one handed interception by Christian Gray.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 29, 2023
Stay for the celebration afterwards. The sideline explodes, they completely mob him, injured starters, fellow freshmen.
It's 31-0. This is what culture looks like. 100% it's brought up in film. pic.twitter.com/yFN6U3Qdmx
Mickey, of course, also got lots of good PT, and Pitt picked on him plenty throughout the game thinking he was going to be a weaker link, especially when Hart was still in the game.
Mickey held up well, though, and after several near-interceptions on routes he tried to jump but just couldn’t quite reel in, Mickey managed to step in front of a Christian Veilleux pass and put on a little show for Irish nation.
Mickey’s first interception being a pick-six that really helped open the floodgates of a rout of Nard Dog and Pittsburgh is sensational, but what’s even better is just the journey Mickey has taken to get to this point, both on the field and off it.
He was forced into action as a freshman in 2022 when he certainly wasn’t ready to be left on an island against the likes of USC’s receivers with Caleb Williams throwing them the ball, and yet he took his lumps and kept after it and never let anything get his supreme confidence down. It’s paying off, and it’s easy to see a corner rotation for 2024 of Morrison, Gray, and Mickey where all three are just fantastic, confident dudes who can completely shut down opponents’ passing attacks.
Off the field, this was special for Mickey as well to house one with his family watching, considering what his mom has been going through battling stage 4 cancer. It clearly meant a lot to Jaden and his family:
So glad my wife was able to see our son make a big play today!! Jaden mama is happy!! ❤️ https://t.co/YFvtu6tq1d— Lamar Mickey, Ed.D. (@ballerselite) October 28, 2023
Jaden seems like an awesome kid, and super strong (as does his family) to be fighting through what they’re going through. That was a really cool moment for a young player who I think is only gonna keep getting better as he gets a lot more PT next season and becomes a key contributor in the secondary.
Speaking of key contributors in the secondary, we haven’t even discussed the guy who continues to have made the biggest leap this season — Xavier Watts. After his monster game against USC, you’d not be surprised to see a bit quieter performance against Pitt, especially considering they don’t have the passing volume and confidence that the Trojans have with Williams under center. And yet Watts still somehow managed to snag himself two more interceptions IN THE FIRST HALF, putting him at 6 on the year.
Xavier Watts was targeted twice yesterday. He intercepted both of those passes. His passer rating against was 0.0.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 29, 2023
He leads the NCAA with six interceptions and is 13th in total passes defended.
Photo credit: @ISDimagesRick pic.twitter.com/ql3r8phG49
Watts has just been a massive playmaker this season, not only in picking off passes but also being fantastic in run support and just a leader on the back end of the defense.
His emergence has aligned quite nicely with just some sparkling performances by the Irish pass defense — that ain’t no coincidence.
Heard this stat from @jamieuyeyama on Power Hour and had to look it up.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 30, 2023
Notre Dame opponents are 5-40 (13%) for 163 yards (4.1 ypa) with zero touchdowns and 3 ints on passes thrown 20+ yards in the air.
This secondary is special.
Photo credit: @ISDimagesRick pic.twitter.com/Zd8Z3ctONA
Before I move on, shout-out to Mickens and Chris O’Leary for developing the talent they have at these position groups. Safety recruiting under O’Leary hasn’t been as good as most would like, but it hasn’t been HORRIBLE by any means and the actual coaching he’s giving to guys like Watts is shining through. It should be fun to see what he can do with guys like Adon Shuler and Ben Minich and Luke Talich (plenty of potential and athleticism there), as well as what he can do with even higher rated prospects the Irish are potentially bringing in, like Brauntae Johnson and maybe Ivan Taylor.
Okay, staying with the defense, there were a few other positives I want to quickly note:
- Marist Liufau and Jordan Botelho both picking up sacks as the Irish front seven did a solid job terrorizing Veilleux all game and helping force all those picks he tossed to Watts, Mickey, and Gray.
Notre Dame pressured Christian Veilleux on 45% of his drop backs.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 29, 2023
He went 3-12 for 12 yards and four interceptions.
ND's defense with a 23.5% havoc rate in this game. Dominated Pitt's inexperienced OL and still only allowed 4.4 YPA to Christian Veilleux (+ four interceptions) without top two CBs— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) October 29, 2023
- Related: Rylie Mills and Howard Cross continue to just be awesome duo inside that maybe don’t always show up on the stat sheet, but are both playing their way into NFL consideration (and could be All-Americans in 2024 if they were to come back — hell, Cross might get some AA nods at the end of this year considering some of the midseason love he got)
- Thomas Harper had 5 tackles and 2 tackles for loss and continues to be just a massively important glue guy on this defense, doing a bit of everything and helping really drive the success
- Al Golden’s guys held Pitt to 1-for-11 on third down, and overall held them to 255 total yards, including just 53 rushing yards on 2.8 YPC. They also held Veilleux and backup QB Nate Yarnell (note: NOT Phil Jurkovec) to a 50% completion rate and just 6.3 YPA
Alright, now that we’ve covered the fantastic effort by the defense in only giving up 7 points (in garbage time against backups), let’s talk about the offensive players because they certainly did their fair share in this one.
Chris Tyree is, no doubt, the guy to shout-out first, as the senior continues to show more each week and prove he’s really the best wideout, and one of the best playmakers, on the team. After a sluggish offensive start with Hartman’s first pick, Tyree took the scoring into his own hands with one of the better punt returns I’ve seen in a LONG time, showing a newfound ability to just shrug off tacklers and keep running until he had nothing but open field ahead of him.
He’s just become such a versatile, dangerous player this season, taking to the wide receiver position way faster than he had a right to as a running back for the first three seasons of his Irish career. The 47-yard catch he made not long after his punt return was incredible, with a great display of speed, concentration, and great hands to reel in a tough catch in traffic.
His willingness to do whatever is asked of him is awesome, and his leadership and example-setting in bouncing back from some struggles are such great intangibles to bring to a locker room. The dude is really special.
The Chris Tyree punt return for 82 yards and a score make him the first @NDFootball to score a touchdown on a punt return, kick return, rush attempt and reception since Julius Jones. @iamrocketismail and Tim Brown also accomplished the feat— Notre Dame Football PR Team (@NDFootballPR) October 28, 2023
Chris Tyree Getherall— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 28, 2023
Also, Marcus Freeman is already somewhat talking about in pressers the idea of Tyree coming back for another season, which would be HUGE in my opinion. You get another-year-older versions of Jaden Greathouse and Rico Flores, plus Tyree, plus Jayden Thomas, plus the tight end talent, plus maybe a Tobias Merriweather who starts to put it together or a Braylon James or KK Smith who’s now ready to contribute, and then anyone else who comes back (Deion Colzie, etc.), and whoever takes over at QB will have some nice weapons, even before you consider the pass catchers out of the backfield in Price and Love and Payne and also the possibility they still go get a good WR in the portal as well.
Speaking of all that young talent we expect to see back next season, they did some nice things on Saturday:
- Jadarian Price with a rushing touchdown and a 37-yard kick return!
- Rico Flores with a casual 60-yard catch-and-run
- Evans snagging 5 passes for 66 yards prior to his injury
- Merriweather getting himself a couple catches, including a nice 42-yarder from Hartman
- Jeremiyah Love with a 33-yard catch that showed just how easily he can turn on the jets and ZOOM down the sideline
- Jordan Faison with some nice catches and a really fun punt return — dude is gonna be fun the next few years
- Braylon James with his first career catch!
- Cooper Flanagan with his first career catch and first career touchdown on a NICE 19-yard ball from Steve “Peanut Butter” Angeli* who was 6-of-7 for 92 yards and a touchdown on the day
*Pat Rick Note: I know people are skeptical Angeli can be the starter next season and think the Irish need to go to the portal again this offseason to bridge the gap between Hartman and Kenny Minchey/C.J. Carr, but I’m not so sure. Am I convinced Angeli is absolutely going to be the answer? No. But has he done ANYTHING in his limited PT to make us think he can’t handle the job? Also no. He looked really good vs. Pitt and you can count me in the camp of people who thinks the Irish should poke around in the portal, but should only take a game-changing QB transfer. Because I think they can be fine with Angeli/Minchey next year and then Angeli/Minchey/Carr in 2025, depending on what plays out in ‘24.
Also, in less-young and way-more-experienced talent, we saw:
- Audric Estime run for 114 yards on 6.0 YPC and THREE touchdowns as he continues his push for the Doak Walker award
- Devyn Ford helping cause that fumbled punt by M.J. Devonshire
- Ramon Henderson cleaning up the fumbled punt in the endzone for a fumble recovery touchdown
- the offensive line paving the way for 535 total yards of offense, including 4.7 YPC and 4 rushing touchdowns while only allowing 1 sack — all against a pretty solid defense
Pitt's defense had not allowed more than 5.5 YPP to an offense this season. ND's offense finished with 8.2 YPP— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) October 29, 2023
Finally, I just want to finish this review of Last Week’s Results by pointing out how the Irish dominated time of possession, won by 51 in a game where they were missing their two best corners and their QB threw 2 INTs and 0 TDs, and just went out there and handed the Nard Dog his worst loss ever while making it 103-10 in ND’s favor the last two times these teams have met.
Alright folks, let’s keep it moving — we canceled the Charts and Graphs section this week due to not having time while on PTO to put together anything, so instead let’s go straight to making sure we celebrate our successes and hand out some Team Members of the Week recognition.
I’m so happy to congratulate Chris, Audric, Mitchell, Cooper, Steve, Xavier, Jaden, and Christian for their fantastic accomplishments this weekend — we are so proud of you!
Please be sure to check your inboxes after this call for a special treat, on us — a Baskin Robbins giftcard redeemable at any participating location!!!!
Now, let’s wrap up our talk about the past week with Pat Rick’s Live Journal, detailing his day in paradise soaking up the sun, inhaling expensive drinks and food, and then frantically trying to tie his bowtie before heading to an awesome wedding.
I won’t read all that off to you, but just want to reiterate the below points:
- Venice Beach has some incredible shops/merch being sold, and also my friends’ dog Fred is an absolute star
- Room service chilaquiles while watching College Gameday in a huge, comfy bed is pretty darn close to heaven
- Sitting by the pool while looking out at the ocean and people-watching while following scores/Twitter for the early game on my phone and drinking margs and beers — also pretty darn close to heaven (especially once I moved my umbrella to block the sun and protect my fair Irish skin)
- Ordering a “beer bucket” that comes with chips and salsa for some reason to go with my already expensive room service lunch — could be the move
- Chris Tyree you GOD
- How is the NBC broadcast this bad? Jason Garrett doesn’t know Where’s Waldo or how the pushups are supposed to work, they just said Cam Hart had been replacing Ben Morrison as if he wasn’t a 5th year starter and captain, and they inexplicably claimed a kid was 30 years old when he wasn’t
- Shower beers are still great — confirmed
- Tying a bowtie when you’ve never done it before is not as great — confirmed
- Let’s dance!!!
Okay, now let’s turn the page and set our sights toward this coming week. Here’s the Project Timeline to remind you all where we’re currently at in our “season” for Project W.I.N.
Yep, that’s right folks — somehow, some way, we’re now about to be in early November and thus it’s time to talk about the Irish’s road trip to Clemson to take on the Tigers. ND hasn’t played at Clemson since the 2015 heartbreaker in a monsoon, which was at the very beginning of Clemson’s rise to power.
Now, the Tigers seem to be in a bit of a free-fall, currently 4-4 after losing to a not-good NC State team on Saturday. You never want to use the transitive property in college football, but that definitely makes Clemson seem a lot less intimidating as a road opponent when the Irish handled the Wolfpack so easily in Raleigh earlier this season.
With that said, let’s dive into an overview of this still-dangerous Clemson squad, especially considering they’ve got a lot of nothing to lose at this point and lots to gain from ruining ND’s NY6 bowl chances — basically a reverse of last year when the Irish stunned Clemson and removed them from the CFP discussion.
Here’s a total overview of Dabo Swinney’s program — I won’t waste your time reading the slide out loud to you all, but will note just a few key points:
1. From what I could find, there may or may not be some sort of Clemson motto related to some rings — and that motto is “Who shall separate us now?” I think now we know the answer: Duke, Florida State, Miami, and NC State
2. I’ve never seen such a contrast in creativity when naming the school colors than here, where the Tigers have been as unimaginative as possible with “Clemson Orange” but then save it with an amazing name for their shade of purple — “Regalia”
3. Clemson has two mascots, apparently — The Tiger and The Cub. Not only do they not respect their own mascots enough to give them real names, but you know what they always say — if you have two mascots, then you don’t have one!
4. It seems so crazy that Dabo Swinney has been head coach for 16 years at Clemson. How is that possible?
5. Some heavy hitters in here whom Clemson has never beaten in football: Army, South Florida, Cal, Marshall, and then of course the blue bloods like Centre, Sewanee, Pacific, Oglethorpe, Jacksonville NAS, Camp Hancock, and Georgia Navy Pre-Flight
6. Clemson has a fun list of alumni, including the only person killed by enemy fire during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the founder of Hooters, the first Chief of Space Operations for the United States Space Force, the lead guitarist for Creed, Strom Thurmond, the actor who plays Tevin in I Love You, Man, Pacers/locker room legend Dale Davis, Jerian Grant’s uncle Horace, a defense contractor convicted on 2 counts of conspiracy, and our very own Chansi Stuckey!
Sweeeet, now let’s get to the good stuff — what are the best names this Clemson roster has to offer?
The Tigers do not disappoint — I will let you run through the excellent list on this slide in your free time, but just want to point out they’ve got guys named Noble, Wise, Sage, Banks, and Hamp, they’ve got the last name Orhorhoro, a dude named Bob Gunn III, country club-ass names like Blackmon Huckabee Jr. and Riggs Faulkenberry and Chapman Pendergrass and Hampton Earle, excellent alliteration in Wade Woodaz, and a guy I will now only refer to as “Joey Flesh.”
The list goes on — Dabo may not be mining the portal for talent or looking to bring in recruits with NIL money up front, but damnit if he IS still bringing in the best and brightest names who are looking for a God-fearing good ole southern boy to be their coach.
Let’s go even deeper now and pull out some key competitive insights on this Clemson team, as they’re still pretty good at a number of things despite their iffy record this season and lack of star offensive talent like they’ve had over the past 5-7 seasons.
The 2023 Clemson football team has not had the season they were hoping for, that’s for sure. The Tigers were hoping the last two seasons — which were still double-digit win seasons — were temporary downslides that would be corrected with a return to prominence in the ACC and on the national stage this season.
Unfortunately, they’ve only won half of their games to-date, beginning with a 21-point beatdown at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils in their season opener. It was a weird game where Clemson had some horrible turnovers in the red zone multiple times, but still — they clearly weren’t back to being the dominant program they were from 2015-2020.
They managed to blow out Charleston Southern and FAU to get back above .500 after 3 games, but then lost to Florida State in overtime. Following that near-resume builder, they beat Syracuse and Wake Forest to get to 4-2, but have since lost two in a row to Miami (in double overtime) and this past weekend to NC State by a touchdown.
The Tigers, despite that 4-4 record, are still ranked 21st in SP+, mostly driven by their defense that is still VERY good (11th in the SP+ defensive ratings). They’re 41st offensively and 84th in special teams, though, leading them to where they’re ranked overall.
That 84th-rated offense simply hasn’t found much of anything they’re very good at this season under new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, whom the Tigers poached from TCU after the Horned Frogs’ massive success under Riley in 2022. Riley may still be able to get the offense humming in the coming seasons, but it’s clear he’s not magical enough to get it done in one season.
Clemson is 64th in the country in scoring (28.8 PPG) and 49th in total offense (416.6 YPG), and not any better when it comes to more efficiency-based metrics. They’re 64th in yards per carry running the football (4.25) despite only running it 37 times per game, and T-93rd in yards per attempt when throwing the ball (6.7).
They also are 46th in total passing offense and 71st in passer rating, led by sophomore QB Cade Klubnik, a former 5-star prospect who has had a similar start to his career as D.J. Uiagalelei did from 2020-2022, never quite making a leap. Klubnik, Jaden Greathouse’s former high school QB, still has time to get there, but he definitely hasn’t been stellar just yet. He’s thrown for 1,947 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions so far this season, averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt while being sacked 16 times.
He has been good at completing passes (63.9%), allowing Clemson to rank in the top 35 in completion percentage in the country, but that’s about all the Tigers have going for them through the air. They’re not BAD, per se, but simply aren’t a credible threat to beat you vertically like they used to be with Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence running the show.
Klubnik’s main targets in the passing game are led by WR Beaux Collins, who’s emerged as a top pass catcher for them with 30 receptions, 408 yards, and 2 scores so far this season. WR Tyler Brown is right there with him (32 catches, 397 yards, 2 TD), and guys like Troy Stellato (25 receptions, 202 yards, 1 TD), Antonio Williams (17 receptions, 192 yards, 2 TD), and Adam Randall (11 receptions for 135 yards) add solid depth on the outside.
TE Jake Briningstool is also a very dangerous target and should present a tough matchup for the Irish linebackers and safeties, as he’s reeled in 31 passes for 344 yards and 3 touchdowns so far this season.
I mentioned that Clemson isn’t particularly effective running the ball, and that’s almost certainly a result of an iffy offensive line. The Tigers aren’t lacking for talent at running back, with starter Will Shipley* being a very good player (515 yards, 4.6 YPC, and 3 TD on the ground while also adding 20 catches for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns in the passing game) and his backup Phil Mafah bringing plenty to the table as well (439 yards, 6.0 YPC, 6 TD + 15 catches for 74 yards).
*Pat Rick Note: Shipley is in concussion protocol after taking a hard hit to the head against NC State, so we will see if he’s able to go this weekend. Mafah would step in as starter in his absence
Unfortunately, Clemson doesn’t run the ball a whole lot (T-49th in rushing attempts per game and 65th in total rushing offense), which limits the damage those two can do despite being quite capable.
The pressure and penetration opponents are getting against Clemson further backs up that theory that the o-line has been the problem. The Tigers are T-65th in the country in sacks allowed (2 per game) and 88th in sack yards allowed (128), while they’re also T-98th in tackles for loss surrendered per game (6.5) and 108th in TFL Yards Allowed (231).
Riley’s offense does excel in some areas, though — they’re tied for 16th in the country in first downs per game (24) and are top-50 in 3rd down conversion percentage, and they take care of the ball in the passing game (T-29th in interceptions thrown). Unfortunately, they’re T-110th in turnovers lost on the year, struggling not to fumble the football.
They also REALLY struggle to score once they get into the red zone (124th in the country with a 70.73 score percentage and 99th in TD % at 53.66%), and don’t have the explosiveness an offense would need to make up for that (T-97th in plays of 20+ yards, T-90th in plays of 30+ yards, T-85th in plays of 40+ yards).
The only reason Clemson has managed to be 4-4 and to nearly beat a team like Florida State is because of their defense, which is still top-notch despite how often they’re hung out to dry by the Tigers offense, which has led to a more pedestrian scoring average than they’re used to (T-38th in the country at 21 PPG allowed).
Despite that, the Tigers are still elite in just about every other metric — they’re 6th in total defense (allowing just 266.9 YPG) and 8th in yards per play allowed (just 4.31), and are top-20 both in stopping the run (16th in total rushing defense at 99.13 YPG and 16th in YPC allowed at 3.13) and in shutting down the pass (9th in total pass defense at 167.8 YPG and 6th in YPA allowed at 5.5).
That pass defense is pretty darn talented and will make things tough for Sam Hartman and the Irish receivers — they’re 12th in the nation in passer rating allowed, T-22nd in completion %, and T-19th in passes defended despite not being particularly great at getting interceptions (T-71st at 0.75 INTs per game). The group is led by a trio of very solid safeties in R.J. Mickens (32 tackles, 3 PD, 1 FR), Andrew Mukuba (27 tackles, 3 PD, 1 FR), and Jalyn Phillips (25 tackles, 1 sack, 4 PD) — all of whom have some ball skills to their name and are helpful in run support.
At corner, Nate Wiggins is probably the most talented name to know — he has 13 tackles, 4 PD, 1 INT TD, 1 sack, and 1 FF on the season so far. Add in Sheridan Jones (23 tackles, 1 PD, 1 INT) and Toriano Pride Jr. (14 tackles, 4 PD) and they’ve got several guys capable of executing some sticky coverage out there.
What’s interesting is that this Clemson team is really good up front, but not as much in the pass rush like they used to always excel at, but instead just in getting up field to get tackles for loss (T-12th nationally at 7.63 per game) and shut down running lanes. The key names to know leading that effort are Clemson’s two star linebackers, Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter.
Trotter is the son of former NFL linebacker Jeremiah Trotter (as you might have guessed), and does a little bit of everything for Clemson’s defense (team-leading 54 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 PD, 1 INT, 2 FF, 8 QBH). He’s a top NFL Draft prospect at his position.
Carter is not quite as hyped as a future pro but still VERY talented, with 43 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks, and 4 QBH so far this year. Add in LB Wade Woodaz as a playmaker in the middle of the defense as well (17 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INT including 1 INT TD, 1 FR) and most teams don’t find a lot of success getting into the second level for big gains on the ground.
Despite not having a pass rush that gets home super often (T-54th in sacks per game with 2.25), there are still some big, talented guys on the front line of the Tigers defense that will be very challenging tests for the Irish offensive front. Ruke Orhorhoro is an elite DT for Clemson (15 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PD), and combines with experienced starter Tyler Davis (25 tackles, 3 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PD) to comprise a very tough middle of the defensive line. They’re spelled by 5-star frosh Peter Woods (11 tackles) and DaMonte Capehart (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF, 3 QBH).
At defensive end, T.J. Parker is the name to know in terms of who actually gets home for some sacks, as he’s got 4 sacks on the year to go with 23 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1 PD, and 4 QBH. Xavier Thomas (17 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 QBH, 1 FR) and Justin Mascoll (16 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 PD, 1 FF) are other talented ends with whom Joe Alt and Blake Fisher will have to deal all day.
As a whole, the Clemson defense is excellent at not giving up first downs (7th in the country with just 14.5 allowed per game and 33rd in 3rd down conversion %) or giving up big plays (4th in plays of 10+ yards allowed, T-9th in plays of 20+ yards allowed, T-12th in plays of 30+ yards allowed, and T-27th in plays of 40+ yards allowed), putting the clamps on opposing offenses all over the field.
They are a little more beatable in the red zone (T-40th in red zone score %), but considering they’ve only allowed 19 red zone trips in 8 games this year, that’s not necessarily saying much. Also, despite not being elite in total turnovers gained or interceptions, they’re top-25 in the country in forced fumbles, forcing about 1 per game this season.
Long story short, this is a really tough defense that maybe doesn’t make tons of big plays like interceptions and sacks, but DOES stifle opponents and stop them from even sniffing long drives or red zone trips most of the time. This will likely not be a sparkling or non-frustrating day for Irish fans watching Gerad Parker’s offense, y’all.
A few other quick notes:
- Clemson is T-98th in turnover margin because of how many their offense has lost, but they otherwise play a pretty clean game (36th in penalty yards and T-26th in penalties committed per game)
- Clemson has had two different kickers this season in Jonathan Weitz (13/13 XP, 6/10 FG) and Robert Gunn III (14/15 XP and 1/4 FG) — neither appears to be very good at kicking long field goals, so don’t expect the Tigers to have any big advantages in the kicking game
- In fact, expect the Irish to maybe have a chance to do something in the return game — Clemson is near the bottom (127th) in the country in average kick return allowed (25.25 yards per return). They’ve only had 4 opponent kick returns on the season, so they may never give the Irish a chance, but if they DO, look for Jadarian Price or Devyn Ford to have some opportunities for nice gains there
- Punter Aidan Swanson is fine but not exactly a weapon in flipping the field (41st in the country in punting average at 43.71 yards per punt, long of 62)
- Will Shipley returns kicks for them and freshman wideout Tyler Brown returns punts, but neither has shown any flashes of housing one yet this year
Welp, we’re just about out of time for this call, so let’s quickly cover What’s Important Now for the Irish as they travel to South Carolina for this latest showdown with Dabo and the Swinnies...
We don’t have time for me to go into these in lots of detail, but here are the 6 key things the Irish need to focus on this week — this is What’s Important Now for Marcus Freeman and his squad as they look to go 8-2 on the year.
1. Make sure B-Mo and Hart are healthy and able to help. Clemson struggles to throw compared to really good passing offenses, but will still be more of a threat than Pitt was through the air last week, and has some raw talent to make you pay if you get caught napping. Lock it down on the outside and force them to play big-boy ball against the likes of Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, J.D. Bertrand, etc.
2. Focus on wrapping up and just containing Shipley/Mafah and the Clemson offense will be slowed considerably, if not shut down completely. Whereas Clemson’s receivers and passing game leave something to be desired, the Tigers backfield is talented and fully capable of gashing you if you give them the chance. However, the Clemson o-line is questionable at best, so as long as the Irish keep playing tough and disciplined and wrap up, they will avoid letting these guys get to the second level to keep the chains moving.
3. The ND offense can’t have drives that stall or turn it over in the red zone this week — they MUST convert into points. Because Clemson has had a down year, I think people are overlooking this is still an elite defense that will only allow so many scoring chances to a GOOD offense, let alone Gerad Parker’s offense who hasn’t moved the ball much against most of the real defenses they’ve faced. So, they better be ready to come away with points whenever they get into the red zone here — wasted opportunities will allow Clemson to hang around and then who knows what might happen late.
4. It’s time for a healthy dose of Love and Price early on, using their speed to stretch the Clemson defense. Estime can instead be used more effectively in the 2nd half to wear them down and bludgeon them than to have him run into a fresh wall of Clemson defenders in the first half. Let’s throw some guys at them in ways they aren’t expecting and then crush them once they’re reeling.
5. Be creative in the passing game with play-action and taking some deep shots, and give Sam time to do so. Clemson’s defense will know they can bring the heat and potentially disrupt Hartman, so if the offensive line can provide enough time for him to get off some early deep shots to Tyree or Greathouse to punch back early and discourage that a bit, it will help in the long run and open up more options as the game goes on.
6. Win the turnover battle and you should be able to escape with a win against a reeling program who’s a little desperate. They’ll be at home with nothing to lose against a top-12 team who kicked their asses last year, and thus a couple big turnovers from their talented defense could be a recipe for disaster for ND — think the blocked field goal and BenMo picks in 2022. Play a clean game and force a turnover or two of your own and you should be able to walk out of there with a somewhat comfortable win, Irish.
Folks, that’s all we’ve got for today — any questions before we sign off?
I’ll take your silence to mean you do not!
Per usual, please look out for the link to this deck that I will send right after we hang up, and I hope you all have a great rest of your week as we all prepare for Clemson. Thanks!
*clicks “End Call” button*
Ooooof, well that was painful to get through but at least it was mostly fun and positive — now it’s time to go get caught up on the hundreds of unread emails I have after being out of office for just a few days — gotta love that!!!