As the East Coast braces for Hurricane Joaquin, Notre Dame prepares for a gigantic football game. The Irish head to upstate South Carolina on Friday, ready for the elements, not to mention a football game with No. 12 Clemson.
The Irish practiced with a wet ball this week. They worked out on natural grass. They drilled down and tried to cover everything, from squib kicks to rain delays, any potential scenario they might face, on or off the field.
“We booked a hotel for a couple extra days just in case,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got a place Sunday or Monday, we’ll be down there and ready to play.”
After a week of work, Kelly is confident that his team won’t be worried about the weather. After all, the Tigers seem to be challenge enough.
So as DeShone Kizer gets ready to lead the Irish into Memorial Stadium and a rain-soaked Death Valley, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. (Hopefully you brought an umbrella.)
Forget about Hurricane Joaquin. All Irish eyes should be on DeShone Kizer.
There is no single player more important to the Irish’s fate this weekend than quarterback DeShone Kizer. The sophomore is coming off three performances where he’s looked at home in the pocket, never displaying any of the shakiness you might expect from a first-time performer.
But traveling to Clemson will be different. As will the elements. Kizer covered both parts of this equation on Wednesday, sounding not all that worried about any slickness that might come with a wet football.
“I’ve never really had too big of an issue when it came to rain. I have pretty good-sized hands where I can grip the ball pretty well,” Kizer said this week. “We’ll definitely prepare for that with using wet balls in our practice and understanding that the wind is going to come into play and things like that. But it’s all going to be a mental mindset.”
Dealing with the crowd is another point. After recalling the feeling that came when he heard his first Tomahawk chop at Doak Campbell Stadium, Kizer expects this crowd to be even louder, giving him all the more reason to do his best to quiet them down quickly.
“Doing the extra small things—making sure you’re being quick in getting up there and relaying the play a couple times down. And getting back into your stance so you can be able to make a check,” Kizer said. “Also with that being said, the best way of quieting a crowd down is making big plays…so we’ve got to make sure that we get things rolling as soon as possible and hopefully at least take it down a couple of notches on the loudness scale.”
It’s been since 1977 since Notre Dame and Clemson did battle. Let’s hope this one is as good of a game as the one 38 years ago.
It’s a trip beyond Memory Lane for me, but the last time Notre Dame traveled to Clemson, Joe Montana led the Irish to an epic victory that helped spring a national championship. Trailing by 10 heading into the fourth quarter, Montana put the team on his shoulders, running for two touchdowns to pull out a 21-17 win, their closest game in their national championship season.
(Fun fact: Montana faced off against his professional teammate, TE Dwight Clark, that evening in Clemson, collegiate opponents before becoming one of the game’s historic QB-TE connections, including “The Catch” from the 1982 NFC Championship game.)
But while Montana’s comeback is all that remains in most stories, one controversial call still stands above the rest. On a critical 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, Clemson looked to be stuffed just shy of the end zone (feel free to watch for yourself). But the referee found a way to block Notre Dame’s defender from making the tackle, allowing Clemson’s Lester Brown to get to the pylon before the Irish could chase him down.
It’s the type of play that would’ve likely melted the internet (certainly more controversial than the illegal pick called last season) today, with screams of home-cooking surely to last for years to come. Instead, the Irish pulled the victory out, rallying from the 10-point deficit to turn the play into a forgotten footnote.
Are we in for a game as memorable as that one? Check out this spooky stat:
Keep your eye on the trenches. While the Irish offensive line is stout, Notre Dame’s front seven might hold the key to victory.
Clemson’s offensive line is a work in progress. While the Tigers skill talent is among the best Notre Dame has faced, the guys protecting Deshaun Watson are still figuring it out.
So while most of us have wondered if Harry Hiestand’s boys can continue their dominance up front, take a look at Notre Dame’s front seven, because there’s a chance this group is the one that wins the game for the Irish.
Clemson starts a true freshman at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt was a blue-chip recruit and a Top 100 player, but at this time last year he was playing at North Gwinnett high school, not in the ACC. A matchup with Sheldon Day or Isaac Rochell might be a good one for Notre Dame.
Starting center Ryan Norton is out with a knee injury, replaced by junior Jay Guillermo. Even veterans Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, both fifth-year seniors, hardly inspire much confidence.
In their preview of the offensive line before the season, Shakin’ the Southland had this to say about the veteran duo.
Eric Mac Lain was a failed tackle experiment that moved inside to guard and has still struggled at times in the pass pro department. Joe Gore looks like Tarzan but for the most part has played like Jane throughout his career.
Notre Dame’s front controlling things could be key this weekend. And facing an offensive line that finished last season ranked 101st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and has had to deal with injuries and replacing two key starters? This might be a place where the Irish could take control of the game.
For all the join a conference talk, Notre Dame is still plenty comfortable in the ACC. And they should be, considering the Notre Dame alums running athletic departments across the conference.
It’s not exactly a story that’ll impact the play on the field this weekend. But Dabo Swinney’s non-comment comments about Notre Dame and the ACC stirred up a bunch of old news, namely complaints from other coaches that the Irish should join a conference.
The Irish did join a conference, in all sports but football. And Notre Dame’s made a quick home in the ACC, a partnership that has all parties involved saying nothing but good things. That ACC commissioner John Swofford accepted partial-admittance in exchange for five regular season football games raised a few eyeballs. But no group of athletic directors likely understand the value of the Irish to the conference more than the ACC.
We see that this week, in ticket prices. We saw that in Notre Dame’s trip to Virginia. And as the Irish continue their tour of ACC opponents, they’ll play to packed houses, not always the norm for an average Saturday in a conference that isn’t as rabid as the SEC.
In this week’s game notes from Clemson, Tigers Assistant AD and football SID Tim Bourrett (a 1977 Notre Dame grad) points out the Irish alums in leadership positions inside the conference, likely a reason the move was such a good fit to begin with.
Georgia Tech’s athletic director Mike Bobinski is a 1979 Notre Dame graduate. Florida State’s AD Stan Wilcox graduated from Notre Dame in 1981, playing for Digger Phelps on the 1977-78 basketball team that reached the Final Four. North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham played golf for the Irish and earned both a bachelors degree and a master from Notre Dame. He also spent over 15 years in the Irish athletics department.
So while some head coaches inside the conference may not understand why Notre Dame’s allowed a unique relationship with the conference, don’t worry—their bosses do.
Going up against a tough Clemson defense, Notre Dame’s offensive line knows it has a chance to make a statement.
Notre Dame’s running game has taken college football by storm. Expected to be a backup, C.J. Prosise‘s 600 yards are the most in school history through four games. His yardage, touchdowns and average per carry all are within the nation’s best dozen statistically.
That work has been fueled by the offensive line. Both Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin look like top NFL prospects. The Irish rank 12th in the nation in rushing offense at 284.8 yards per game, the most through four games for an Irish team since 1992, exactly 23 seasons ago. (Another fun fact: Not a single player on Notre Dame’s team was alive for that season.)
Center Nick Martin talked about the mindset the Irish offensive line has as they head into their most challenging environment of the year, facing their most capable opponent.
“It’s a sense of pride. As an O-lineman we love to run the ball. We like when we have success,” Martin said. Our running backs, the way they run, you guys have all seen it. It’s unbelievable.
“Up front, we work our butts off to try and make holes and do our best. But beyond that also, it’s about the people that come before you, too. The O lines, having guys like Chris Watt, Zack Martin, Christian Lombard, those guys, and even before that, the O line at Notre Dame, especially in the 90s and ever since then, has always been a sense of pride, and we just try to carry that on.”
Saturday evening, with a 99 percent chance of rain in the forecast, the offensive line will be asked to dictate terms. After earning the game ball last week, Martin and his linemates couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.
With the hype machine turned up to an 11, every little thing counts. And it’s certainly added some fuel to the matchup of Will Fuller against Clemson’s talented secondary.
We’ve already talked about Will Fuller vs. Mackensie Alexander. Clemson’s top corner is ready for the receiver that Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables is calling perhaps “the best receiver in America.”
Alexander’s teammates are also ready. They took this tweet by Fuller and used it as fuel, a slight only understandable with an advanced degree in social media and youthful hashtags.
“I actually ‘favorited’ the tweet,” Clemson safety Jayron Kearse told local media on Monday. “They’re talking a lot. Obviously they don’t know what we do down here in Death Valley, so I’m looking forward to this.”
The Tigers have put together quite a winning run at home over the past few years. But Fuller has also dominated college football these past two seasons as well, scoring more touchdowns than any other receiver in college football since the start of 2014.
So Saturday night, something’s got to give. And with the weather, the Irish and the Tigers all set to do battle in Death Valley, it’s got the ingredients to be a classic.