Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Cotton Bowl coaches Brian Kelly of Notre Dame and Dabo Swinney of Clemson shake hands at their joint news conference Friday.

Saturday, December 29, 2018 1:00 am

Clemson-Notre Dame Breakdown

Quarterback

Notre Dame: By now, everyone knows the story. Ian Book took over as the starter in Week 4 and led the Irish to eight victories, returning to the bench only because of a rib injury against Florida State. The junior ranks eighth in the country in passing efficiency at 162.5 and No. 4 in completion percentage at .704. If Book is hurt, Brandon Wimbush remains a highly capable backup with a big arm.

Clemson: In a parallel of Book's situation, Trevor Lawrence took over as the starter midseason and has cemented himself at the top of the depth chart. Lawrence, the No. 1 recruit in the 2018 class, has thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions while completing 65 percent of his passes. He's poised for a freshman, but he is still a freshman.

Advantage: Notre Dame

Running backs

Notre Dame: The Irish have three players capable of making big plays out of the backfield: Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong. Williams has been the workhorse, running for 941 yards in just eight games and averaging 6.6 yards per carry. After missing the first four games because a suspension, he should be fresher than others.

Clemson: The ACC Player of the Year lines up in Clemson's backfield. Sophomore Travis Etienne is a 5-foot-10, 200-pound bulldozer that also possesses breakaway speed. Etienne averaged a remarkable 8.3 yards per carry and scored 21 touchdowns, third in FBS. Lyn-J Dixon and Adam Choice each average more than 7 yards per carry in their own right.

Advantage: Clemson

Wide receivers

Notre Dame: The Irish have a pair of big weapons on the outside in 6-foot-4 wideouts Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. Both are capable of making plays in traffic, while Boykin averaged close to 15 yards per reception and caught eight touchdowns. Slot receiver Chris Finke has terrific hands, plenty of athleticism and is coming off a seven-catch, 86-yard performance against USC.

Clemson: Like the Irish, Clemson has two 6-4 receivers. Tee Higgins is the top threat, with 802 yards and 10 touchdowns, but true freshman burner Justyn Ross is the one really capable of stretching a defense, averaging 20 yards per reception. Hunter Renfrow made the game-winning catch in the closing seconds of the 2017 National Championship Game.

Advantage: Clemson

Tight ends

Notre Dame: The best tight end in this game is All-American Alize Mack and it isn't particularly close. Mack made just six catches in the first three games with Wimbush at quarterback but has blossomed with Book under center, finishing the season with 34 catches for 349 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games. His athleticism is rare for a player his size. Cole Kmet and Nic Weishar provide depth.

Clemson: The Tigers' top pass-catching tight end is Milan Richard with six catches for 50 yards this season. With so much depth at receiver and running back, the lack of production from that position isn't really a flaw, but it gives Lawrence one fewer safety valve over the middle.

Advantage: Notre Dame

Offensive line

Notre Dame: The Irish revamped their line after the departures of top-10 NFL draft picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Center Sam Mustipher returned to hold down the middle and earned All-American honors, but the key could be how some of the less-experienced players such as Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks stand up to the pass rush. 

Clemson: Left tackle Mitch Hyatt, a four-year starter and two-time first-team All-American, anchors the line and will make life difficult for the Notre Dame pass rush. Tremayne Anchrum (6-foot-2, 310 pounds) earned second-team All-ACC honors at right tackle. The Tigers gave up just 14 sacks, 11th-fewest in the country.

Advantage: Clemson

Defensive line

Notre Dame: The Irish D-line will play second fiddle in this game, but All-American Jerry Tillery (81/2 tackles for loss, seven sacks), Julian Okwara (10, 51/2) and Khalid Kareem (11, 51/2) form a fearsome front for Notre Dame, as well. The Irish had 31 sacks.

Clemson: Possibly the best unit in this game for either team. Massive All-ACC tackle Dexter Lawrence won't play because of a failed drug test, but All-Americans Christian Wilkins and Clelin Farrell have combined for 30 TFLs and 15 sacks. Defensive end Austin Bryant added 11 TFLs and completes a dominant threesome that excels in run-stopping and pass-rushing.

Advantage: Clemson

Linebackers

Notre Dame: The pair of Fort Wayne native Drue Tranquill and All-American Te'von Coney have paced the Irish defense for two straight seasons. They have combined for 182 tackles, including 18 for loss this year and broke up seven passes. Asmar Bilal at Tranquill's old “rover” position has 46 tackles and three for loss. The three will be key in setting the edge against Clemson's speedy backs.

Clemson: Tre Lamar (second team) and Kendall Joseph (third team) earned All-ACC honors and this group has benefited from the destructive defensive line. With the line occupying opposing blockers, there have been plenty of blitz opportunities for the linebackers, who haven't had to stay in coverage long because of quarterback pressure.

Advantage: Notre Dame

Secondary

Notre Dame: Julian Love, a two-time All-American and the all-time Notre Dame leader in passes broken up, leads a secondary that has been the driving force in the Irish ranking No. 1 in the country in defensive yards per pass attempt (5.35). Notre Dame has picked off 12 passes, including four from safety Jalen Elliott, while fellow safety Alohi Gilman is second on the team in tackles with 76 and is solid near the line of scrimmage.

Clemson: The secondary is the purported weak point of the defense, but Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long thinks that's “silly.” Cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and A.J. Terrell and safety Tanner Muse were All-ACC and safety Isaiah Simmons led the team with 74 tackles and knocked down four passes. Like the linebackers, the defensive line has helped mask any weaknesses.

Advantage: Notre Dame

Special teams

Notre Dame: Justin Yoon is the all-time leading scorer in Notre Dame history and is a dependable kicker, but his consistent range on field goals is only about 45 yards. Punter Tyler Newsome is a captain and averaged 44.4 yards per punt this season with a long of 63. Finke averages 10 yards per punt return and has come close to breaking more than one.

Clemson: Kicker Greg Huegel hasn't missed an extra point in 68 attempts, but he's tried only 13 field goals and made just nine, with only one longer than 45 yards. Punter Will Spiers hasn't had many opportunities because of the potent offense and averages just 39.4 yards. Cornell Powell has averaged nearly 30 yards per kick return.

Edge: Notre Dame

Coaching

Notre Dame: Brian Kelly is the fourth Notre Dame coach, along with Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian, to go undefeated in the regular season twice with the Irish. He's revamped his style since the 4-8 season in 2016 and it's showed with a 22-3 record over the last two years.

Clemson: Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a second-tier Power Five team into one of the nation's two foremost powers, along with Alabama, all while showing the charisma of a committed evangelist. Historically, Clemson isn't this good. Swinney has made them this way.

Advantage: Clemson

Prediction: Notre Dame is bigger, faster and stronger than it was in 2012. Ian Book makes quick decisions, neutralizing the Tigers' defensive line, Dexter Williams breaks a long TD run and the Irish fluster Trevor Lawrence just enough to come out on top. 

Notre Dame 27, Clemson 22

– Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

dsinn@jg.net