Clemson football: 3 keys to defeating Notre Dame

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In its latest poll, the Associated Press listed Clemson football as the nation’s top team yet again. Despite a close game against Boston College last week, the Tigers remain the No. 1 team for the ninth consecutive week. However, the Alabama Crimson Tide drew 29 of the 62 first-place votes and only sit two points behind the Tigers in the poll’s rankings with 1,513 points.

This week will determine whether or not Clemson retains its spot atop the college football world. The No. 1 Tigers face Brian Kelly’s No. 4 Fighting Irish at Notre Dame this coming Saturday. While Dabo Swinney’s team previously dispatched the No. 7 Miami Hurricanes with ease, Clemson won’t have Trevor Lawrence for the biggest game of their season.

After the narrow win against Boston College, Swinney spoke with reporters and informed them that Lawrence, who previously tested positive for COVID-19, won’t play in the upcoming showdown. Lawrence has enough time to clear part of the ACC’s COVID-19 guidelines, but there isn’t enough time to get the superstar quarterback through the cardiac evaluation.

So, the Tigers roll into Notre Dame Stadium with freshman D.J. Uiagalelei at the helm. Clemson needs to rebound from a sloppy performance against Boston College while taking down its primary rivals in the ACC. Here are some keys to the game.

Dominate on the ground

While Uiagalelei performed well last week, completing 30 of his 41 pass attempts for 342 yards and two touchdowns, Clemson doesn’t want to put too much pressure on their young quarterback. Instead, veteran running backs Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon should see a significant amount of action early and often.

The Fighting Irish only allow 93.7 rushing yards per game, and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is one of the country’s best players. Meanwhile, the Tigers feature an inexperienced offensive line and a rushing attack that produces 166.6 yards per week. While Uiagalelei has the potential to determine this game’s outcome, the ground battle should have the final say.

Clemson struggled to run the ball against Boston College, which featured tackling machines Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson. Notre Dame and Owusu-Koramoah could pose a similar problem. While the Tigers routinely dominated on the ground last season, amassing 240 rushing yards per game, most of that offensive line is gone. That dominance might not return this year.

Clemson can control the game’s pace and keep Notre Dame’s offense sidelined if the Tigers get Etienne and Dixon going early. Etienne is the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing yards, and Clemson needs him to show up on Saturday. Also, the senior can’t commit any more heinous fumbles like he had against Boston College. Those are momentum-killing plays.

The Fighting Irish have a great rushing attack led by Kyren Williams. The sophomore only has six fewer rushing yards than Etienne this season despite playing in one less game. Notre Dame also has four players with at least 200 rushing yards compared to Clemson’s one. Kelly’s team relies on the running game in crucial situations. This week will be the toughest test of Clemson’s defensive front yet.

Throw Ian Book off his game

The Fighting Irish rely heavily on the running game, but they can’t beat a team as talented as Clemson football with a one-dimensional offense. Book has to play a role for Notre Dame to escape with a win over the Tigers, and that’s where Clemson can make an impact. He is the weak link in Notre Dame’s offense, and his mistakes could gift the Tigers their eighth win this season.

Book is a quality college quarterback. He’s completing 61.3% of his passes this season and has seven touchdowns to only one interception. However, he’s notorious for crumbling against tough competition. In 2019, Book threw two interceptions in a loss to Georgia and went 8-25 for 73 yards in a blowout loss to Michigan.

The battle between Book and Clemson’s defensive backs should be interesting. Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec embarrassed Clemson’s secondary in the first half last week, and he finished the game with 204 yards and two touchdowns. Jurkovec has outplayed Book this year, but he revealed some holes Book could exploit this weekend.

The best way of throwing Book off his game is through relentless pursuit. Clemson’s defensive line is one of the best in football despite missing several starters from last year. The Tigers already have 28 sacks with two freshmen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy leading the way. Notre Dame has a great offensive line, but even that unit might struggle to protect Book this Saturday.

Give D.J. Uiagalelei time

The Eagles only recorded one sack on Uiagalelei this past weekend. When the freshman has enough time to go through his progressions and survey the field, he’s capable of outplaying Book and most of his ACC competitors. Uiagalelei is mobile enough to make plays with his legs, but the Tigers shouldn’t ask him to do too much against a good Notre Dame defense.

I can’t stress enough how well Uiagalelei played against Boston College, but facing the No. 4 team in the nation is an entirely different beast. Clemson must support the passer as much as possible and hope he irons out some of the wobbly balls and underthrows he made against Boston College.

The Tigers can beat Notre Dame with Uiagalelei. There are reasons why Clemson is No. 1 and Notre Dame is No. 4. Clemson football fans can only hope the Tigers back up their moxie this weekend.

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