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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, December 29, 2018 3:10 pm

Cotton Bowl Pregame: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

ARLINGTON, Texas – The day is here. Notre Dame and Clemson learned they would play each other on Dec. 2, giving the teams nearly four weeks to prepare for the first clash of undefeated teams in the five-year history of the College Football Playoff. 

As I've written all week, this is an important game for not only this Notre Dame season, but for several years down the road. The Irish have a chance to prove once and for all that they belong back among the nation's ultra-elite. The specter of that 2013 BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama has hung over the perception of the program ever since. Sure, the conventional wisdom goes, Notre Dame can beat some decent teams, but when it plays the best of the best, it's outclassed. The Irish can lay waste to that narrative with their performance today. 

Of course, all of that talk about 2012 and whether the Irish belong on this stage is taking place outside of the Notre Dame locker room. The team isn't carrying that weight. It isn't burdened by that history. None of the players on that 2012 team are here now (with the exception of quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees) and coach Brian Kelly said that he put that game behind him "the next day." He's also made it a point to mention – with tongue firmly in cheek – that this year is different because the Irish aren't facing 2012 Alabama, one of the most talent-rich teams in recent college football history. The Irish may be 12.5-point underdogs, but among the players and coaches there's no doubt they belong.

Notre Dame may not be playing 2012 Alabama today, but 2018 Clemson has a chance to be remembered in much the same way. The Tigers are a juggernaut, ranking in the top 5 in the country in scoring offense and scoring defense. They've won their 13 games by an average of almost 32 points and beat Pittsburgh 42-10 to capture the ACC Championship.

Clemson features a balanced offense that can make big plays in the run game with Travis Etienne and a handful of other backs or through the air on the arm of freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence. Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea has had 27 days to come up with creative ways to rattle the Clemson quarterback, who is making just his 10th college start. Lawrence has a 24/4 touchdown to interception ratio, but he hasn't faced a defense like Notre Dame, which has picked off 12 passes and leads the nation in pass defense per play, giving up just 5.35 yards per throw. If the Notre Dame defensive line can slow down Etienne and force Lawrence to beat them, Julian Love and Co. will have a chance to make some game-turning plays in the secondary. That's a big "if" with Etienne in the backfield, but that's why Clemson is 13-0.

When the Irish have the ball, the key will be to give Ian Book a little bit of time to throw. Clemson's defensive line is one of the best units in the country. It took a hit with the loss of Dexter Lawrence to a failed drug test this week, but Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant combined for 41 tackles for loss and can wreak havoc even without Lawrence. Meanwhile, Albert Huggins was a capable backup for Lawrence this season and can be a difference-maker in his own right. If the Irish want to have any chance to score, Book will need some time to get the ball out. By the same token, Book will also have to be quick. The short-and-intermediate passing game has been Notre Dame's bread and butter since the junior quarterback moved into the starting lineup and it will be important to establish that today to keep Clemson from bringing extra pressure, as often as it has at times this season. If Book can get the ball out in a timely manner, the Irish receivers will have a chance to make plays against single coverage.

Notre Dame and its fans have been waiting for this game for almost six years. The Irish made a decision in January that they had national championship talent in 2018 and they made that the goal. They're two wins away. A win in this one would be a sign to the rest of college football: Notre Dame is back.

dsinn@jg.net