Clemson Football: Key players for defeating Notre Dame

clemson football

On Nov. 7, Clemson football suffered its only loss of the season in a double-overtime game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Ian Book planted his flag as one of the ACC’s best quarterbacks while Kyren Williams announced his arrival on national television against the country’s top team. However, the Tigers have Trevor Lawrence back in the fold and can’t wait to get another shot at Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish.

Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers need to win the upcoming ACC Championship Game. Without the conference title, Clemson won’t make the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame could lose and still get in, but winning the title would cement its spot as a top-two team in the nation. It’s a do or die situation for the Tigers, and they need all of their crucial players to come through with significant performances.

While Lawrence, Amari Rodgers and Myles Murphy are some of Clemson’s usual contributors, the following five players will decide if the Tigers get another shot at the national championship.

Travis Etienne, RB

Notre Dame’s defense stonewalled Etienne in the November matchup. The two-time ACC Player of the Year averaged 1.6 yards per attempt on 18 carries, amassing 28 rushing yards. He also caught eight passes from D.J. Uiagalelei for 57 yards, but that didn’t fix Clemson’s one-dimensional offense.

Etienne entered 2020 with Heisman aspirations. He’s fallen well short of those goals, averaging 75.8 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. Between 2018 and 2019 combined, the superstar running back averaged 109 yards each game and 7.9 yards per attempt. Etienne’s inability to get the running game energized this season has dragged down Clemson’s offense. However, he’s not the only one who deserves blame for the running game’s shortcomings.

Tyler Davis, DT

Davis played a significant role in Clemson’s run to last year’s national championship game. As a freshman, he recorded 45 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Unfortunately, the starting defensive tackle has only appeared in five games this season, and the matchup against Notre Dame wasn’t one of them.

Without Davis and several other defensive starters, the Tigers allowed 208 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. While Clemson’s backups performed admirably, the team clearly missed Davis’ punch in the middle of the defensive line.

In a crazy season, Davis’ numbers aren’t what you’d expect, but the sophomore has a chance to get back on track against Notre Dame.

James Skalski, LB

The senior defensive captain didn’t play in the November matchup between Clemson football and Notre Dame. Skalski’s presence carries a lot of weight on defense, and his absence led to the Tigers allowing a season high in rushing yards. With Skalski and fellow linebacker Mike Jones Jr. returning to the lineup, it’s unlikely Williams has another field day.

Questions arose about Skalski’s health after he sat out most of Clemson’s game against Virginia Tech. The senior warmed up before the game and played the defense’s opening series before changing into street clothes. However, defensive coordinator Brent Venables put fears to rest by telling the media on Monday,

“We feel like he’s going to be close to, if not 100 percent. He’s practicing today. He was very ambitious about getting back as early as he did.”

Skalski’s condition is extremely significant, considering his backup, Jake Venables, suffered a broken arm against the Hokies.

Derion Kendrick, CB

Notre Dame utilizes a mixture of wide receivers instead of focusing on one star. The Fighting Irish have three players with over 300 receiving yards this year. Senior Javon McKinley leads the pack with 660 yards and 37 receptions. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, McKinley doesn’t have the size of Ben Skowronek or tight end Michael Mayer, but he’s difficult to bring down.

While Clemson utilizes a rotating cast of corners, Kendrick is the leader. As a junior, he holds seniority over Andrew Booth Jr. and Sheridan Jones. Some college analysts have Kendrick going in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, following in the footsteps of Trayvon Mullen.

Before going pro, Kendrick wants to win his second national championship with Clemson football. That only happens if he clamps down on Notre Dame’s top options this weekend and provides the defense with an energy boost. Kendrick recently returned a fumble for a touchdown against Virginia Tech. The Tigers hope to get more electric plays out of their top cover man on Saturday.

The entire offensive line

The offensive line faces several challenges against Notre Dame. First, it must keep Lawrence clean. The superstar quarterback needs time to work his magic and get players open downfield. Luckily, the Fighting Irish haven’t had a dominating pass rush at any point this season. Notre Dame only brought down Uiagalelei twice when these teams first met.

Second, Clemson’s offensive line needs to do a better job of creating holes for Etienne. There weren’t any openings for the future NFL running back when Notre Dame limited him to 28 rushing yards in early November. Etienne averaged 1.6 yards per carry in the double-overtime loss. If the Tigers want a prayer of winning, they need at least 80 rushing yards out of Etienne.

Finally, the front five must learn from their first clash with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish haven’t reinvented their defense over the past month. There are lessons that Jackson Carman and company can apply in the ACC Championship Game. Their improvement would mean a lot for Clemson’s championship hopes this year and looking ahead to next season.