Keith Arnold

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 19:  The Clemson Tigers enter the stadium before their game against the Florida State Seminoles at Memorial Stadium on October 19, 2013 in Clemson, South Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

And in that corner… The Clemson Tigers

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The Irish are headed out of town this weekend, no ordinary road trip as they head to South Carolina and Clemson’s Death Valley. Notre Dame will put their undefeated 4-0 record on the line in one of the most difficult stadiums in college football to come out a victor.

With over two weeks to prepare, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney brings in an unbeaten team as well, surviving a Thursday night in Louisville their last time out. With both teams understanding that they’ll need to play their best to win one of the early-season’s premier showdowns, now is as good a time as any to get the other perspective on how Saturday night in primetime will shake out.

Joining us is Shakin the Southland‘s Brian Lewis. On a really busy week, Brian was kind enough to revisit our conversation from earlier this summer, and also to look ahead to this weekend as we get ready for Notre Dame’s first visit to Clemson in almost 40 years.

Hope you enjoy.

 

When we spoke this summer, you talked about this being one of the biggest games on the schedule this year. Then on Sunday, Dabo Swinney said the Tigers were going to prepare just like this was… Wofford (or App State or Louisville).

I get that from a coach, but can you actually believe him? And do you expect that Clemson maybe held a few things back from a scheme perspective for this game?

Dabo is a very big fan of coachspeak, but in this case I think he’s right. Back in 2013 we hosted 2 big games that saw GameDay come to town. Clemson-UGA and Clemson-FSU. Against UGA we were relaxed and ready to play, against FSU the team let the moment get to them and it culminated in a rather depressing beating. I think the coaching staff will be able to treat this as just another game.

The staff has definitely held a few things back, but I think that is also because of our opponents. The first two games were always going to see basic plays on both sides, and gien what Louisville does on offense and what they tried to do defensively, I don’t think we’ve seen the full Clemson playbook yet.

 

The preseason perception of this Clemson team was a strong offense and a young, rebuilding defense that would grow as the season went along. That hasn’t necessarily been the case. The offense (on paper) struggled moving the ball against Appalachian State, and against Louisville it was the defense that seemed to thrive.

Sticking on the offensive side of the ball, can you give us a progress report on how the Tigers have played after replacing Chad Morris?

This year the biggest surprise has been the running game. Morris always talked about having a power running game to complement the passing we see in a HUNH (Hurry-up, No-huddle), but it never materialized. This year we finally have a group of RBs that seem to negate the poor play of our OL. In the passing game, I think the issue is more of Watson just being off. The playcalling has been pretty comparable to Morris, and now it comes down to execution.

 

Defensively, the game against Louisville sticks out. Again, we’ve only seen three games with two against FCS (and now Sun Belt) competition, but that Thursday night in Kentucky had to feel really good, right?

Thursday night games are always tricky on the road, especially for Clemson. Getting the win felt great, but there was definitely a little bit of missed opportunity surrounding the team. The poor special teams play and Deshaun Watson‘s inconsistency made many fans think Clemson should have done better. That said, a win against one of our top competitors in the Atlantic Division is always a good thing.

 

Here’s a matchup I’m excited to see: Will Fuller against Mackenzie Alexander. Brent Venables called Fuller the best receiver in the country last week. Is this the key matchup for the Tigers defense or is it slowing down the Irish running game?

I’m honestly not that worried about Fuller. He’s definitely talented and plays a very physical game, but if he’s beating us then I suspect we have a lot bigger problems with stopping the run. Alexander will have some help from the safeties, even if it isn’t needed, and we will likely put 7-8 in the box to stop the run.

 

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is back after an ACL tear. How has he looked so far? Specifically from an athleticism POV? Notre Dame’s secondary is asked to play aggressively in Brian VanGorder’s scheme and can give up big plays. Is this where you expect the Tigers to attack?

Watson has seemed fine athletically, but we haven’t really seen any designed runs from him. Most of the time he’s taken off because of a breakdown in the play or very good coverage. Those runs he’s seemed fine, but he also wasn’t laying out against a team like Wofford or App State. The big worry has been his timing and accuracy. Some of his passes seem to be just a half step slow, but hopefully it is more about mechanics than anything physical.

I think the big guy to watch out for is Artavis Scott. The receiver has a silly amount of speed and is used on all sorts of sweeps and pitches. He could have a big game if Notre Dame gets a little too aggressive in defense.

 

Notre Dame brings DeShone Kizer into Death Valley, his first road start after taking over after Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending injury in week two. Just how daunting do you expect this atmosphere to be?

(It took me a while to find the last home losses for the Tigers, they fell to Florida State in 2013 and South Carolina in 2012—so two dropped games in going on four seasons..? That’s impressive.)

If Kizer can handle this atmosphere then Notre Dame fans should never worry about how he’s going to handle any other college stadium. A night game at Death Valley is always a treat, and this one is going to be even more special. The cheapest tickets are going on Stubhub for close to $200 and everyone I’ve talked to is planning to tailgate all day, even if they don’t have tickets.

The big thing for Kizer is not going to be avoiding mistakes, but rather making some plays. Just avoiding mistakes isn’t going to quiet the crowd. He’s going to need to knock back Clemson a bit with some excellent play. If he can do it or not is going to be the big question, especially if Clemson can score first or make a big defensive stand early.

 

Last question: Having only watched the Louisville game and highlights from the Wofford and Appy State games, I still am not sure what I know about this Clemson team. You’re much closer to the situation. Do you have an idea as to how good this team is? Is this as big of a litmus test for the Tigers as it is for the Irish?

The defense is definitely better than expected, but the offense still has a question mark. I’m fairly confident is saying we have a talented defense that may be a bit thin in some positions, but that depth problem only seems to come up when we have injured players.

On offense this game is absolutely a litmus test. We’ve been waiting to see Deshaun Watson at 100%, and hopefully we get that this weekend. After seeing it in a few games last year all Clemson fans know what he can do, and hopefully he’s just taken a few weeks to get acclimated.

I don’t do pure predictions, but I will say this, the score stays within seven points. It is hard for me to see either team coming out and absolutely dominating. There are too many question marks for both teams to see that happening.

Trip to Clemson represents biggest moment of DeShone Kizer’s career

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DeShone Kizer is Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, a scenario that six months ago would’ve shocked even Kizer himself. The sophomore quarterback has not just emerged from a sea of self-doubt that engulfed him this spring, he’s shown a resiliency and on-field demeanor that have people mixing him up for a grizzled veteran, not a redshirt freshman who has started just two football games.

Kizer was an unlikely hero against Virginia, rallying the Irish with a game-winning touchdown pass to Will Fuller that stole a victory from the Cavaliers.  He followed that relief appearance up with two solid home starts, giving Brian Kelly a consistent performance from his quarterback as the offense continued to churn, all while Kizer’s comfort level seems to exponentially grow.

But with all apologies to the Yellow Jackets and Minutemen, Notre Dame’s trip to Clemson is another beast. Asked to lead his teammates into Death Valley, a place where opponents have only emerged with victories twice since the 2012 season, Kizer will have the weight of Irish nation on his shoulders as he prepares to lead Notre Dame to their third 5-0 start in four seasons.

For some, the moment could become too large. But Notre Dame’s head coach believes his second-year quarterback will be ready.

“He has a presence about him, a commanding presence that, when he goes out there with the other ten players, you don’t feel like you’re putting a freshman quarterback out there,” Kelly said.

“I see that every day he goes out there, he takes control of that offensive unit. It’s not meek. It’s not weak. It’s a presence that he brings when he goes out there, and I think that that’s what he’s brought.”

That Kizer finds himself filled with confidence is a credit not just to the quarterback, but to the coaching staff and teammates that have helped rebuild him. Six months ago, Kizer was closer to rock bottom than the leader of the Irish offense.

The odd-man out as Malik Zaire and Everett Golson battled for the starting job, Kizer even began to wonder if football was for him.

“Going into the summer, I literally hit rock bottom,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth for our Stay Gold podcast. “I mean, I wasn’t throwing the ball well. I was the third-string quarterback. Am I even playing the right sport? I was thinking that to myself—why did I even play football?”

“I went one-for-five for three yards in the spring game. I got a safety, what dual-threat quarterback goes backwards and gets tackled in the end zone? I was so down. Finally I was like, ‘Look. There’s no more redshirt next year. There’s no more Everett Golson versus Malik Zaire. There was nothing.’ The only thing that was stopping me from playing was myself every time.”

Kizer built from that moment, working with new position coach Mike Sanford to reconstruct his confidence. He also fed off the work his teammates put in. A year after some competitive uneasiness in the position room, Kizer’s kinship with Zaire and freshman Brandon Wimbush was a significant change that’s been noticed by players and coaches alike.

“Those guys spend a lot of time together. Really it’s a room that I sit in every day and I can tell you that they have a very close relationship. When Malik went down, the first guy that was in the room to see him was Brandon and DeShone,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s just a group that it’s a bit unique. Last year it wasn’t like that but this is a different group of kids, and they are pretty close.”

With Zaire down, it’s now Kizer’s position to carry. And while he’s still a first-year player seeing and doing things for the first time, Kelly’s confident that Kizer—along with the help of a dominant offensive line and explosive running attack—can do enough to go out and win this weekend.

“He’s learning along the way. There’s things that he hasn’t seen before. There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well,” Kelly said. “But I think that it’s his presence that allows the other ten players to have a great deal of confidence that they can go out and be successful.”

Fuller, Alexander headed for a showdown

Chris Milton, Will Fuller
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Will Fuller is one of the hottest wide receivers in the country. Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander considers himself one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. As we examine the many subplots that’ll come into play this weekend, this showdown on the edge will be one of the best to watch.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables certainly thinks so. Last week, he had nothing but good things to say about Fuller in his media availability, calling Fuller the best receiver he’s seen on tape and comparing him favorably to former Florida State standout Rashad Greene.

“They got probably the best receiver in America,” Venables said, per the Clemson Insider. “He might be the best there is. He gets my vote from the guys I’ve watched on tape, by a landslide.

“Fuller is very dynamic… Fuller is big and really fast. He can go up and highpoint the ball. He runs very good routes and runs in and out of his breaks extremely well. This guy is better than (former Florida State receiver Rashad) Greene.”

Green had Clemson’s number during his record-setting career in Tallahassee. (He also had Notre Dame’s, catching eight passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.) In four games against the Tigers he averaged more than 100 yards a game and scored five times. So credit the Tigers’ defensive coordinator for sounding the alarm bells, and making sure that in Clemson’s 17 days between games they didn’t forget about Notre Dame’s touchdown scoring machine.

The Irish have seen some solid secondaries this season, but heading to Clemson will be a different challenge. And it’s pretty clear that Clemson views Notre Dame in a different light, after starting their season with FCS Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville.

“I told Mackensie, this will be the best one you’ve seen,” Venables said, while also telling reporters that it won’t be a one-man matchup.  “We’re about to find out what the heck he’s all about.”

 

 

 

Irish get commitment from SoCal safety D.J. Morgan

Rivals
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Notre Dame added their 15th commitment to the 2016 recruiting class this weekend when Southern California safety D.J. Morgan pledged his commitment to the Irish. Morgan stars for St. John Bosco, and is a jumbo-sized safety who has the length to potentially grow into an in the box player as well.

Depending on the recruiting service, Morgan is a fringe 4-star prospect. Yet he’s a late bloomer who missed his freshman season with an injury and converted from wide receiver. He’s also a long defensive back, somewhere in the 6-foot-2 or 6-3 range, certainly an asset for a Irish secondary that could use a big body. After committing early to Arizona State, Notre Dame worked their way into the conversation with Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford, the Irish assistants going into one of the hottest rising programs in Los Angeles and coming out with Morgan. (Bosco is where 5-star QB and current UCLA freshman Josh Rosen played.)

Morgan was on campus for his official visit and saw the win over Texas, hosted by freshman Nick Coleman. He’s known for his physicality near the line of scrimmage, and multiple reports say that the Irish coaching staff has referenced Drue Tranquill when discussing Morgan’s future role in the Notre Dame defensive scheme.

Ultimately, Morgan’s speed—and how big he grows—will determine where he ends up. There’s room for a lanky, hard-hitting safety in the Irish secondary, especially with Elijah Shumate, Matthias Farley and Avery Sebastian moving on after the season and Max Redfield finishing his eligibility next year.

With plenty of big names left on the board and the Irish short on spots, how Notre Dame finishes up this recruiting class will be anybody’s guess. But adding Morgan to a secondary that already has commitments from Julian Love, Jalen Elliot and Spencer Perry is another key piece to the class.

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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. UMass

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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After Notre Dame’s 62-27 win, Brian Kelly said the Irish will follow their standard 24-hour rule and celebrate their victory. But here’s guessing they cut the celebration short a few hours, knowing there was significant work to be done before heading to South Carolina for their biggest game of the year thus far.

But before we turn our full attention to next weekend in Death Valley, let’s close the book on the weekend that was. Here’s your good, bad and ugly from the Irish’s 35-point win.

 

THE GOOD

The Ground Game. Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday. That’s the first time over 400 since the 1996 season. It’s the fifth-straight game the Irish have gone over 200 yards, the first time that’s happened since 2000. So it’s safe to say that the offensive line, C.J. Prosise and the rest of the Irish ground gainers have it going pretty good right now.

The mismatch up front was obvious from the start, maybe even before the start considering Colorado gashed UMass in a season-opening win. And it’s tough to say much more succinctly than UMass head coach Mark Whipple said after the game.

“We just couldn’t handle their offensive line. Their offensive line just manhandled us,” Whipple said.

Prosise got the 15 carries that I thought he should get. Josh Adams was fed the ball and he responded with a 70-yarder for a touchdown and his first 100-yard afternoon. Dexter Williams looked good and even both quarterbacks were effective running the ball.

A few years ago, the Irish couldn’t find a back who could break a 20-yard run. Now, Notre Dame has a backfield of home run hitters (including a back-up quarterback!), none more impressive than Prosise, who had two more touchdown runs of 15+ yards. He’s already at 600 yards for the season, and could’ve probably been two-thirds of the way to 1,000 had Kelly kept giving him the football.

A dominant performance when we were expecting one. That’s what good football teams do.

 

The Special Teams. Tyler Newsome set a Notre Dame record with an average of 52.4 yards per punt. C.J. Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown, the first since Golden Tate did it in 2009. Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffed out a fake punt and everything but an extra point off the upright was pretty much perfect.

Freshman Nicco Fertitta also ripped loose a football on a kickoff, though UMass jumped on the fumble. (Worth noting: Montgomery VanGorder came in to hold late in the game, likely as a backup, but also possibly because DeShone Kizer’s got plenty on his plate.)

The Irish flipped the field and took over the game when Newsome’s punt was pinned inside the one-yard-line. That Kelly put his trust in the special teams and not the offensive line was telling and another good strategic move by the Irish head coach.

 

Big Plays for the offense. Notre Dame scored four different touchdowns of 35 yards or more. That makes nine touchdowns this season over 35-yards or longer, a nice reminder that this team is filled with guys who can take the ball the distance whenever they get a shot at it.

Five different players had a run of a dozen yards or more. Four different receivers caught a pass 15 yards or longer. If the Irish can find ways to make plays in space against Clemson next week, it’ll be hard to slow Notre Dame down.

 

The Kids. So many young players got on the field on Saturday. And just as many of them looked good doing it. After sticking mostly with the two deep in the first three games, Notre Dame cleared the benches on Saturday afternoon.

Brandon Wimbush made a terrific debut. He showed elite arm strength and game-breaking athleticism, breaking the longest QB run since Andrew Hendrix nearly took it to the house against Air Force.

Wimbush is clearly still learning. His decision to not run the ball, freestyle on the fly and throw deep to Equanimeous St. Brown, was sandlot football. It was completely illegal (the Irish had multiple offensive linemen down field blocking, aka doing their job). But it also revealed both players’ ability, something we’ll likely see in the years to come.

Notre Dame’s No. 2 offensive line got work, with Hunter Bivin giving Ronnie Stanley a break after he was rolled up right after half and Alex Bars getting in on the right side. Sam Mustipher put a snap past Wimbush, but otherwise he was unnoticed—another good thing.

Defensively, it was great to see young players everywhere. Greer Martini led the Irish in tackles. Nyles Morgan managed to make seven, playing only in garbage time. Linebacker Te’von Coney played some key snaps (he was on the field in goal line) and we got a look at Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman as well.

It was a next generation game for the Irish and that group looked very good.

 

Quick Hits: 

Chris Brown made his second touchdown catch of the season. That’s a career high. That’s a surprising stat to me, and Brown’s emergence at the No. 2 receiver is a pleasant surprise, matching up to the dominance he’s routinely displayed in practice.

Nice to see Sheldon Day earn another sack. Day made a big play to kill what was left of UMass’s momentum. Another surprise? Day’s two sacks is now tied with his career high in a season, when he was a freshman in 2012.

That preseason knee injury to Corey Robinson? Weird, it wasn’t a season-ender. Kelly said Sunday that Robinson received a cortisone shot and will be back at practice on Tuesday.

Worth noting: Max Redfield may be listed as the starter, but Matthias Farley played a lot of first team reps at safety. And not surprising, it was a tipped ball that Farley got his hands on that led to Cole Luke‘s first interception of the season, just the first of the year for the Irish.

(It was good seeing Redfield out there in the second half earning his keep with some of the backups. He needs to take the reps, especially against an offense that throws the football.)

It’s getting normal to see C.J. Prosise break really long touchdown runs. But that 56-yarder was a thing of beauty.

The Defense played great in the third quarter, and really not as terribly as maybe we all thought. (We’ll still get to them later in the bad section…)

Last tip of the cap: Mark Whipple. He’s a cagey football coach and his postgame comments were tremendous.

 

THE BAD

Big plays hurting the defense. For the second time this season, a trick play baffled the Irish defense. And almost shockingly, UMass broke a touchdown run right up the gut, a game-changing score from the Minutemen.

It’s hard to feel 100-percent warm and fuzzy about the state of the defense after watching the weekend performance. Coverage was good, but hardly great. Cole Luke had an interception, but he was also beat for a big gain. KeiVarae Russell continues to look good, but he’s still clutching and grabbing too much.

Here’s how Kelly described the secondary’s play after four games.

“I think there’s times where we’re competing and challenging throws, and then there’s some times that we’re not,” Kelly said. “I think that if you’re asking Coach VanGorder and Coach Lyght, I think what we’re looking for is consistency and competing for the ball. Some of it is technique where we’re losing at the line of scrimmage in some instances, and then some of it is just not being as aggressive as we’d like to be to the ball. So at times, we are getting those two things. We just need to get it more consistently.”

Clemson will test Luke and Russell, and even more critically, the safeties. And if the Irish get through the Tigers, watching USC’s receiving corps take Cody Kessler dump offs and turn them into gigantic plays, Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge will need to be mirrored by excellent technique.

Moving on to the run-fits, that Notre Dame gave up yardage on the ground and at one point was being outgained by the Minutemen as they averaged 9.0 yards per play—that was cause for concern, grumblings that echoed across all of cyberspace for a time.

But here’s another look at the UMass offensive performance, removing the three game-changing negative plays Notre Dame allowed (trick-play pass, long run and flipped field interception by Kizer):

3-1 PUNT
6-14 PUNT
4-5 PUNT
3-5 PUNT
5-34 PUNT
4-7 INT

UMass gained 139 yards and had two double-digit play drives in their final two possessions against the Irish subs. So while cleaning up the big play is critical, it wasn’t as if the defense was sliced and diced.

 

THE UGLY

Staying empty. Young kids running around everywhere. Two dodged bullets (Ronnie Stanley, Corey Robinson) in the injury department. All in all, a fun Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.