Things We Learned: Notre Dame welcomes ‘Clemson Week’

Kyren Williams Georgia Tech
ACC Media
34 Comments

“It’s Clemson Week, baby.”

There is no need to find a more clever way to say it. Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes wrote the lede not just for this column, but for the week.

It’s Clemson Week.

The 31-13 Irish win at Georgia Tech was needed for the week to deserve a capital W. To a lesser, but similar, extent, the No. 1 Tigers also needed to beat Boston College on Saturday, despite losing star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to a positive coronavirus test on Thursday. They won, despite some drama.

Thus, it’s Clemson Week.

The Tigers have appeared in the last two title games, winning one, and the last five Playoffs, as Notre Dame is well aware. When Brian Kelly puts them above the country, he’s not being hyperbolic.

“I wouldn’t say it was our best performance today, but we did some good things, and we’ve been preparing for this opportunity to play the best team in the country in Clemson at home,” Kelly said. “… They’re excited about this opportunity to play the gold standard in Clemson.”

That gold standard is not tarnished one bit despite Lawrence’s absence this weekend, confirmed by Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney after that come-from-behind win against the Eagles. Lawrence should be out of isolation by Saturday, but he will not yet be cleared for action based on general protocols. In his stead, five-star freshman D.J. Uiagalelei kept Clemson gold with 342 yards and two touchdowns on 30-of-41 passing with a third score on a 30-yard run.

“It’s too bad [Lawrence] is not playing. You want the best players to play,” Kelly said. “The kid that played today is a five-star recruit, as well. I know he’s not Trevor Lawrence, but they’re not going to come to South Bend shorthanded.

“It’s a shame that Trevor’s not playing. We wish him good health and a speedy recovery, but they’ll be well-fortified with an outstanding quarterback.”

This may not usually be the time to detail the coming opponent, but Saturday was as much about the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Uiagalelei and the Tigers as it was about the Irish beating the wreck known as the Wreck.

“I addressed Clemson two weeks ago, so I would think you would think I addressed them after this game,” Kelly said when asked if the Tigers came up in his postgame comments. “Yeah, we talked about Clemson.

“We’ve been waiting to play Clemson.”

If the last two weeks showed anything about Notre Dame, they showed the Irish are not shying away from this challenge. Winning the ACC, reaching the College Football Playoff and proving this four-year rise has yet to peak all depend on next weekend. Despite Kelly’s platitudes, Notre Dame is not hedging in any respect. There is only one pertinent measurement, and it is not if the Irish can win on the road at Georgia Tech.

“We’ve known this Clemson game is on the schedule, and we’re here now,” fifth-year quarterback Ian Book said after throwing for 199 yards on 18-of-26 passing. “It’s a great time to get better and better, and keep getting more games under our belt. Now it’s time to go.”

We’re here now.
Now it’s time to go.
It’s Clemson Week.

Javon McKinley Georgia Tech
Javon McKinley‘s five catches for 93 yards at Georgia Tech led Notre Dame and may have established the fifth-year receiver as a viable option next week. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Nearly half of Book’s yardage came on five throws to fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley, while in a change of pace, only 37 yards came courtesy of the tight ends. The latter has been established already while reaffirming McKinley’s status could be notable in a week.

“We had Ben [Skowronek] last week make some big plays for us,” Kelly said. “This week Javon made some big plays for us. That’s the nature of what we’ll probably see most of the year. We have two big receivers on the outside that are also very capable of catch-and-run. …

“I’ve been saying for quite some time, I felt like they were both capable of being productive players, and they have been. They’ve shown that. You add Avery [Davis] to the mix, Avery’s been really steady for us, as well.”

Not in that mix, freshman receiver Jordan Johnson did not take a snap in his first trip with the Irish after his first week practicing with the contributors. That does not outright rule him out from making an impact against the No. 1 team in the country, but it does very much suggest it.

Clemson Week is not likely one for auspicious debuts.

It is a time for Notre Dame’s strength to set the tone. That strength is not Book and the passing game, nor is it even the powerful running game led by perhaps the country’s best offensive line, though that may shorten next Saturday night.

Rather, the best Irish aspect remains Clark Lea’s defense, which has now given up 16 points in the last three weeks and an average of 9.2 per game this season. Hayes would argue that is far too much — “The six points that we gave up is six points too many in our minds.” — but the last three games have confirmed the 26 points allowed to Florida State were more the byproduct of a pandemic’s interruption and two short fields proffered by turnovers than they were a sign of a diminished unit.

Kyle Hamilton Georgia Tech
Kyle Hamilton makes his third pass breakup of the season at Georgia Tech, where he led Notre Dame in tackles with six, including two for loss. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“We want to be perfect. We want to be the best defense,” Hayes said. “We take this personally. …

“Next week, we’re going to lock in and we’re going to put our best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may.”

In Kelly’s mind, Hayes is a crucial piece of those chips falling on Notre Dame’s side of the table. Sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton and senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah have looked like gold standard-quality players all season, but the stifling defense could use another playmaker or two, despite its stifling nature. Forcing two fumbles on two sacks, and having a third nullified by review, Hayes played the role of that playmaker in Atlanta.

“Kyle Hamilton is, no doubt, for me — you don’t get many players of that caliber,” Kelly said. “… But elevating the play of Daelin Hayes might be singularly as important as anything that happened today. He was at a different level of play. If he can continue to play at that level with a Kyle Hamilton and the other pieces to this defense, then we’re going to get to where we want to be.

“We need to continue to surround other playmakers with a known playmaker in Kyle Hamilton. That’s when this defense starts to really become special.”

Just in time, as it’s Clemson Week. Uiagalelei awaits.

A few statistical notes that may serve as positive Irish harbingers for Clemson Week:
— Notre Dame converted 10-of-15 third downs at Georgia Tech, building on a rate that was already a worthwhile 52.2 percent. Those conversions are how the Irish put together a nine-minute opening scoring drive and how they wrung out the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, a shorter closing crawl than they managed each of the last two weeks.

When at a talent disadvantage — and the entire country except for Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia is distinctly at a talent advantage against the Tigers — shortening the game lessens that gap.

— Two weeks ago, in struggling past Louisville 12-7, Notre Dame scored only one touchdown on five trips into the red zone. One of those was to end the game, so the more honest assessment was one-of-four, but the worry stood regardless. Since then, removing end-of-game situations created by that intentional grind of an offense, the Irish have scored seven touchdowns on 10 possessions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, adding two more field goals. The exception, of course, being sophomore running back Kyren Williams’ fumble against the Yellow Jackets, though that did turn into a touchdown in its own way.

Notre Dame will not be able to squander those opportunities against Clemson and expect to keep pace, unless Hayes & Co. deliver on his intent of a weekly shutout. 7-of-10 may not be 100 percent, but it is a potent rate all the same, particularly since a 3-of-4 portion of that came against a staunch defense last week at Pittsburgh.

Jack Kiser Georgia Tech
Jack Kiser prevents a Georgia Tech touchdown during Notre Dame’s 31-13 win on Saturday. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

— He may not be on the level of Owusu-Koramoah, but sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser reclaimed a role at Buck with five tackles, compared to junior Shayne Simon’s one. With sophomore Marist Liufau sidelined for next week’s first half due to his targeting penalty late in the third quarter in Atlanta, more of that role should be available for Kiser’s instinctual play, which first shined against South Florida when both Simon and Liufau were held out due to pandemic protocols.

— And in the interest of thoroughness, Irish sophomore punter Jay Bramblett punted three times for three returns for three yards, par for the course in a season in which he has allowed 22 yards of returns on 21 punts. It may seem a small thing, but Bramblett’s booms both help Notre Dame’s field position and remove a big-play opportunity from the opponent’s inventory, critical when facing a roster ripe with such playmakers.

It is Clemson Week, after all.