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The Journal Gazette

Monday, December 24, 2018 1:00 am

Kelly says Clemson's greatness is more than any 1 player

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Cotton Bowl

Notre Damevs. Clemson

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

When: 4 p.m. Dec. 29

Records: Notre Dame (12-0), Clemson (13-0)

TV: ESPN

SOUTH BEND – In the short-lived run of the College Football Playoff, Clemson has been a fixture. The Tigers have reached the CFP four straight seasons and won the 2016 national championship.

Clemson enters this year's playoff undefeated and – mostly – unchallenged. The Tigers haven't played a one-score game since Sept. 29 and have won eight straight by at least 20 points.

Statistically, it's the best team coach Dabo Swinney has assembled in his tenure with the Tigers. Clemson ranks No. 4 nationally in points per game (45.4) and No. 2 in points given up (13.7).

“They know how to win football games,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the Tigers. “You can't pin that on any one particular player. That's something that's within the fabric of the football program that's been built over time. So that would be the X-factor.”

Although Clemson's systemic success over the last four years isn't because of any one player, this year's Tigers team features several individual stars who make life incredibly difficult for opponents.

At the top of the list is running back Travis Etienne.

Etienne, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound burner, is the indispensable piece of Clemson's offense. The sophomore from Jennings, Louisiana, finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting after a season in which he rushed for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns, while averaging a soul-crushing 8.3 yards per carry.

Notre Dame has surrendered 100 rushing yards to just one player this season, but Etienne is different.  

“He's a great running back, he's explosive, he's fast, he's strong,” Irish defensive lineman Jerry Tillery said. “He's hard to bring down. He's everything a great running back is. He'll be a great challenge, but I think we're up for it.”

Even if Tillery and Co. are able to slow down Etienne, Clemson's defense is capable of winning games on the rare occasions the Tigers' offense struggles. The dominant defense has its soul up front, with one of the best defensive lines in the country.

Led by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Clelin Ferrell and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Christian Wilkins, the Tigers' defensive front has held opponents to an anemic 2.6 yards per carry. On the pass-rush, the top four defensive linemen have totaled 23 sacks. Notre Dame's run-pass option plays will have to be perfectly executed to fool the Tigers.

When asked to give his first impression of the Clemson defense, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long laughed. 

“I don't want to give you my first impression, because they're awfully good,” he said. “They're extremely talented up front, great inside guys, they're deep. They play extremely hard and they're well-coached, they've got a great scheme.”

Where Clemson might be most vulnerable is at quarterback. Trevor Lawrence is wildly talented, one of the top recruits in the entire 2018 class, with a big arm and an uncommon grasp of defensive schemes. He's also a true freshman on a big stage.

“We're going to make him earn it and make him think every play,” cornerback Julian Love said of Lawrence. “I don't know if it will rattle him, but we'll make him think about it.”

dsinn@jg.net