If anybody was not worried about making the College Football Playoff, it was Notre Dame itself. Julian Love and many of his teammates spent Saturday night at WeishFest, a charitable music festival organized by fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar’s family in a Chicago suburb. If they kept an eye on a football game, it was Northwestern against Ohio State, not Clemson beating Pittsburgh.
“I thought we deserved to be in,” Love said Sunday. “You’ve just got to be confident in that.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent part of his Saturday moving snow-covered patio furniture, not fretting over the optics of the SEC championship game and their effects on the Playoff discussion. In doing so, he apparently spent a few moments crafting a tongue-in-cheek response if Notre Dame was somehow left out of the Playoff; he would follow Central Florida’s lead from a year ago and lay claim to a national championship, nonetheless.
“I had already talked to somebody about a statue, a Brian Kelly statue,” he said. “We would be the national champs, so a statue, and I would get on the ‘Play Like A Champion’ sign, 12-0, and that would be fine with me.
“I had already convinced myself that if we didn’t get in, that would be fine, too.”
Clearly, it was a joke, one to show how confident the No. 3 Irish were about landing in the field of four, now set to face No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 (4 ET; ESPN). Given the quality of the Tigers’ defensive front, its matchup against Notre Dame’s offensive line will warrant more concern over the next month than any Playoff berth did.
The Irish line is among the country’s best — hence its nomination as a finalist for the Joe Moore Award again — but it has also been inconsistent for much of the year. That will happen when two top-10 draft picks depart the left side of the line and a heralded coach also heads to the NFL. A first-year starter at left tackle battling a high ankle sprain will not help the cause, and that has apparently been the case for junior Liam Eichenberg of late.
Getting that ankle healthy will be just a piece of potential betterment brought by a month of practices.
“You have four guys that are getting better each and every week, so there’s improvement there,” Kelly said. “[Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher] is the veteran of the group, and so I see it each and every week as improvement as a group.
“We expect to see that through these next few weeks, as well, that they will continue to grow together. … I see that continues to evolve as an offensive line unit that continues to get better.”
It will need to. While Notre Dame gave up only 19 sacks this year — and that includes one of senior receiver Chris Finke at USC because statistics are absurd — the Irish ground game never found the type of consistency that may be needed to beat Clemson. It averaged 200 rushing yards per game this season (sacks adjusted) but gained 132 yards or fewer three times in the last six games, only one of which was against a respectable rush defense (Northwestern). For context, Clemson has the No. 1 rushing defense in the country per advanced metrics, while the Wildcats rank No. 19.
“Big, fast, physical,” Mustipher said of the Tigers’ defensive line when asked what nuances make them so good. Those broad strokes may actually count as nuances in this instance. “They’re athletic, great ends, great interior linemen, great linebackers. [Defensive coordinator Brent] Venables has those guys with their ears pinned back at all times.”
Further health updates
Aside from Eichenberg’s ankle, Notre Dame will use the first week or so of time off to get junior quarterback Ian Book fully healthy, though he will not admit he may not be so already.
“Once I was cleared by the doctors, everything was good,” Book said. “… Obviously, another week of rest definitely helped. I’m feeling good. Got no problems right now.”
Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill has done away with the cast protecting his broken hand, but he still has his own ankle issues to work through.
“It’s just day-to-day,” Tranquill said. “After playing on it for a few weeks, there’s going to be some soreness and tightness and we’re going to have to work on the mobility piece of it.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa could make an appearance against the Tigers for his first action since suffering a broken foot in the season opener. Kelly said Tagovailoa-Amosa has been cleared for full activity, though he has yet to take part in any football-related items.
Wimbush more probable now, though a role still difficult to find
There was little logic to trotting out senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush in a different role since switching to Book nine games ago. The risk :: reward ratio simply made poor sense. But the need for a healthy backup quarterback is much less at this point, so Kelly may be more prone to getting an additional playmaker into the mix.
“If we can get him in and not disrupt the rhythm of the offense, we’re going to play him and not worry about, we’ve got to keep our No. 2 safe,” Kelly said.
But that rhythm aspect can be difficult to navigate. Either Book has to yo-yo between the bench and the game or the Irish need to pull another playmaker off the field.
“We’d like to see Brandon be more involved in the game because we think he can impact it,” Kelly said. “It’s just trying to get him into the flow of the game without disrupting what you’re doing.”
A 2015 rematch in name only
A total of eight current players from the Notre Dame roster took the field at Clemson three years ago for a 24-22 defeat. (That does not include fifth-year offensive lineman Alex Bars, sidelined for the year by a torn ACL.) Those eight totaled six tackles, four by current senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, and 13 swings of the leg from either Tyler Newsome or Justin Yoon.
“I don’t think that there’s much motivation there,” Kelly said. “We’re familiar with a lot of the things that they do, and they are familiar with structurally some of the things that we do. We have two new coordinators. They don’t, so I think we are a little bit more familiar with what they are doing offensively and defensively.”
For that matter, the two programs watch film of each other frequently, having had four common opponents this season. The Tigers are assuredly already quite familiar with all Irish tendencies.