Well folks, we’ve officially reached the final quarter of the 2023 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season, and your 7-2, 15th-ranked ND squad is heading to Clemson, South Carolina this weekend to play their final road ACC game of the season against Dabo and the boys.
The Clemson Tigers are not exactly where they’d like to be after 8 games, nor are they the premiere late-season matchup that Irish fans were likely expecting when they say this game on the calendar for early November. They’re 4-4 on the season, having lost a lot of their luster in a game one blowout loss to Duke and then picking up 3 more losses along the way, including falling the last two weeks to Miami and NC State, which is the first time they’ve lost back-to-back games since 2011.
Despite the fact this is no longer a top-25 matchup for an Irish team who’d love to add another resume-building win to their accomplishments — especially considering teams like Duke and USC seem to be tumbling out of the rankings as the year progresses — the Tigers still pose a pretty tough test for Marcus Freeman’s squad.
Memorial Stadium is always a tough place for teams to travel to and win, and this 2023 Clemson team still boasts one of the best defenses in the country, which could be trouble for an Irish offense that still hasn’t really put it together against anyone with a good defense. And let’s not forget that they took Florida State to overtime earlier this year — they won’t be a Pitt pushover by any means.
So, in order to understand better how the Irish match up with Clemson and what to watch for in this one, we reached out to Matt Goldin over at Shakin The Southland, SB Nation’s one-stop-shop for all things Clemson. Matt continued the strong tradition of STS writers giving us great insights and knowledge in these Q&As, while also fielding our typical array of more off-the-wall inquiries.
Let’s not waste any more time with me blathering on about how awesome Matt is, though — let’s dive into his responses and get a good feel for the last opponent on the 2023 regular season schedule that truly scares most of us!
1. The Tigers are now 4-4 on the year and 25-10 since the beginning of the 2021 season. For many programs that’d still be a nice run, but for Clemson under Dabo Swinney it’s definitely not been a great last few years.
What have been the driving issues with Clemson falling from their spot at/near the top of the sport? Do you think this is temporary or is Dabo going to continue to struggle to keep up an elite program as the landscape changes with NIL, transfer portal, conference realignment, etc.?
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): Clemson has had major offense struggles over the past 3 seasons in quarterback, offensive line, and wide receiver play. For wide receiver and line, the fingers can be pointed at coaching changes. Long time Clemson wide receivers coach Jeff Scott left after the 2019 season to be the head coach at South Florida. Longtime offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell retired in 2021.
Dabo replaced them with a pair of former players: Tyler Grisham at wide receivers and Thomas Austin as offensive line coach. Grisham’s coaching experience was as a grad assistant and then an analyst for Clemson before getting the nod to coach wide receivers. Thomas Austin at least had some outside experience as Georgia State’s offensive line coach in 2019 and 2020. But Clemson has seen drop off in production from both units.
To give Grisham credit, his wide receiver room has been hit by the injury bug bad. But Clemson lacks the big play threat. During the Tigers run from 2015-2020, Clemson always had someone who could dominate in jump ball situations. The most notable ones are Mike Williams and Tee Higgins, but there were other guys on the roster. There was hope that Cole Turner could be that guy, but Clemson lost him to injury in the third game of the season.
This offseason will be a big test for Dabo. If Clemson had used the portal this year for a couple of offensive lineman and a big play receiver, this team looks a lot different. Going forward it has to be in play for Clemson to get back to the top. It will be interesting to watch what Dabo does regarding assistants. The fans are really hoping some changes are made there as well.
2. This is Cade Klubnik’s first full year starting at QB — what has he done well, and what weaknesses does he still have that the ND defense might be able to exploit? Has he shown strong development and promise for the future, or are Tigers fans anxious to see the backups develop and get some time?
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): Cade’s had his moments where he’s looked really really good and some where he’s looked really really bad. He’s thrown some beautiful touchdowns and flashed his ability to scramble and extend plays with his legs. He’s also had some bad turnovers, and made questionable decisions late in games and in overtime. I think we’re seeing a talented QB who still plays like he’s in high school and is the best athlete on the field. He probably would’ve benefited from two full years as a backup to get some seasoning.
There’s been some folks wanting to see true freshman Chris Vizzina get some action. Vizzina was a highly touted recruit and the plan is to redshirt him this year. He’s a bit unknown in that we’ve really only gotten to see him in the Spring Game and in a handful of series this year.
The other options are Hunter Helms and Paul Tyson. Helms is officially QB2, and looked like the best quarterback in the Spring Game. He’s a former walk-on and has really only appeared in garbage time snaps, so he’s a bit unknown as well. Tyson is the great grandson of Bear Bryant, and began his career at Alabama before transferring to Arizona State before coming to Tiger Town to end his career. His role is essentially to be a veteran voice in the QB Room.
3. What has the Tigers offense looked like under new OC Garrett Riley this year — what have they been good at/bad at, and who are the names to know who could give the Irish some problems on Saturday?
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): Unfortunately for Clemson fans, not that much different than the offense in recent years.
Much to the chagrin of the Tiger faithful, Riley likes to throw a lot of screens. This is not working well because Clemson’s wide receivers have been bad at blocking and the offense really lacks that elite speed player that can take one to the house. Will Shipley and Phil Mafah are great running backs but lack that next gear that someone like Travis Etienne had that could take a simple screen and turn it into a big play. But I think if Clemson can address the lack of playmaker issue and shore up the offensive line, it could get really good for the Tigers.
4. This looks like another really talented Clemson defense — who are the playmakers to know on that side of the ball, and how do you see them matching up with an Irish offense who’s really struggled at times and needs to run the ball successfully and give Sam Hartman a good amount of time in the pocket in order to put up points and be productive?
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): The defensive line is once again incredibly deep. Seniors Ruke Orhorhoro, Tyler Davis, and Xavier Thomas are all having a good farewell tour. Senior Justin Mascoll is having a very good final year and may have positioned himself to be a late round draft pick or at least a training camp invite. Freshmen TJ Parker and Peter Woods have been outstanding on the line.
In the secondary, Nate Wiggins is probably the best corner in the nation. Andrew Mukuba, Jalyn Phillips, and freshman Khalil Barnes have had great years. And veteran linebackers Jermiah Trotter, Jr. and Barrett Carter are doing well, with sophomore wild man Wade Woodaz bringing the heat as well.
The big problem this defense has is they are on the field too much because of the offensive woes. In the past two losses we’ve seen teams able to hold on until the second half and then make the defense pay when they get tired and make mistakes.
Given that we saw Miami and NC State do this, I really have concerns about what a more talented Notre Dame offense can do if this defense gets gassed. Clemson really needs to get some long, sustained offensive drives in order for this game to work in our favor. Otherwise, we’re looking at the same song, 5th verse.
5. FAN QUESTION:
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): Why not?
6. FAN QUESTION:
Will Clemson fans show up, or given the disappointing season, will this be a muted environment especially at Noon?— NDFanatics (@FanaticsNd) October 29, 2023
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): I mean, will it be as loud as the 2015 game? Doubtful.
But it will still get pretty loud. Clemson fans are fiercely loyal. I imagine fueled by mimosas Bloody Marys and other breakfast concoctions, Death Valley will bring the noise at noon.
Who will Dabo blame next? Is there anyone he want to throw under the bus for the NC State loss? What do they think about his recent lapse in leadership when he blamed Cade Klubnik for the Miami loss? Joke of a coach I hope ND puts 50+ on them.— Juan Pagán (@JuanDPagan) October 29, 2023
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): I shouldn’t even take this seriously but fine: if you think Dabo blamed Cade you aren’t being serious. If anything Dabo’s been too protective of Cade.
Dabo also has a winning record against Notre Dame and actually has won national titles in the 21st century. So maybe watch who you call a “joke.”
8. I’m getting married in a few months and our (read: my fiancée's) bridal shower is this weekend, the day after the game.
If you had to assign 5 current Clemson players of your choosing to 5 classic wedding registry items that represent them (e.g. KitchenAid stand mixer, a set of dinner cutlery, a gravy boat, etc.), whom would you choose and what items would they each be?
Bonus: what wedding registry item would Dabo be?
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): I’d assign Wade Woodaz as a set of knives, because when be gets going he’s like a rolling ball of knives. This is technically a baby registry gift, but I’m going to say Nate Wiggins is a really high end car seat, because he’s locking down everyone.
Will Shipley is the coffee maker, because he’s good for starting off the game and also for being reliable when the Tigers need him, much like a good cup of coffee. Receiver Tyler Brown is a cocktail shaker because he’s can produce a lot of really good things. Defensive end Xavier Thomas is a blender, because his hands are quick and will chop you up.
Dabo is the set of stainless steel kitchen utensils that you’ll use for years and years and make incredible meals with.
9. Alright let’s get down to it: who wins this game, what’s the final score, and how do you think it happens?
Matt Goldin (Shakin The Southland): I’m feeling bold: give me the Tigers in an upset 24-20.
I think Clemson finds a way to finally play mistake free football and forces Notre Dame into some mistakes.
Friends, that’s it for this week — I want to give a gargantuan shout-out to Matt for answering all our questions, even humoring the one that REALLY came after Dabo. He provided some awesome insight and a better understanding of what’s been going on with Clemson this season and why they still are a dangerous opponent, especially at home. Also, his responses to the wedding registry question were *chef’s kiss*.
I encourage you all to head over to the Shakin The Southland site over the next few days, as they do some amazing work over there covering a super interesting program and head coach, and you miiiiight even find a Q&A with yours truly posted there.
Furthermore, definitely toss both Matt and the STS site account some follows on Twitter, as they’ll be excellent people to hear from leading up to, during, and after the game with great Clemson perspective, analysis, news, and insights.
That does it — per usual, GO IRISH, BEAT TIGERS!!!