Notre Dame-Clemson Round II evokes a defensive focus for Brian Kelly

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Though never before given the chance at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has beaten the same opponent twice in one season before. It was nearly 20 years ago and in an entirely different division of college football, but he remembers beating Saginaw Valley State twice in 2001 well as the head coach at Grand Valley State, on his way to a national runner-up finish.

Kelly may remember being in Clemson’s shoes even better, losing 34-20 in the regular season to Saginaw Valley State in 2003 before beating it six weeks later, 10-3, in the second round of the Division II playoffs, a run that culminated with a repeat championship.

The difference between the two 2003 games was not necessarily an all-out defensive shutdown. Grand Valley State outgained Saginaw Valley State 394 yards to 325 in the regular-season matchup and 346 yards to 297 in the postseason. Rather, the defenses stepped up in the red zone, turning a combined 7-of-9 red-zone conversions in mid-October into 2-of-6 in late November.

“You learn so much about your opponent, and both teams do, that sometimes when you play a second time, it makes it hard to move the football because the defense gets the edge the second time,” Kelly said Monday. “Those are probably the things I’ve learned in the rematches, that the defenses tend to get a little bit of an edge against you because they have seen you and they know a little bit about where they can lean on you. …

“These games are generally going to be close, hard-fought and separated by one score, and sometimes low-scoring games.”

Kelly and Grand Valley State beat Saginaw Valley State twice in 2001, but other than that, he has not faced an opponent multiple times in the same season this century. At least, not until next weekend in Charlotte against No. 3 Clemson.

“There’s certainly pluses and minuses on that,” Kelly said. “You learn the strengths and weaknesses of each team. Maybe what you lose in terms of tendencies and breaking tendencies, you pick up in getting a better in-depth knowledge of where to attack and having compliments off that. It’s a push on both sides.”

While the Irish leaned on breaking tendencies via new offensive formations and personnel groupings to much praise against the Tigers in their double-overtime victory in November, Notre Dame’s offense actually struggled for 58 minutes against Clemson. After sophomore running back Kyren Williams broke loose for a 65-yard touchdown run on the game’s first official play from scrimmage, the Irish offense would not score again until 22 seconds remained in the game.

Notre Dame gained 518 total yards, but the 10 possessions between those two scores covered just 302 yards. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see the Tigers defense finding success next weekend.

Similarly, after scoring on its second and third drives, Clemson managed three field goals and a touchdown across its next seven drives, a span covering nearly two-thirds the game, and gained just 213 yards while averaging 5.33 yards per play.

“Everybody is talking about the double-overtime game and what the score is,” Kelly said. “Don’t get misled. Everyone thinks this might be a shootout. … 

“More than anything else, this becomes much more of a physical presence and playmakers making plays, and then the fundamentals.”

Of course, the playmaker of most note will be Tigers junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who missed Round One due to a positive coronavirus test and the necessary protocols following his 10-day isolation. To Kelly, though, Lawrence will change only so much about Clemson’s offense.

“The system is the system that they run,” he said. “There may be a little bit more activation of quarterback runs, but the scheme up front, we’re well aware of what that scheme is in terms of the quarterback run scheme.”

The Irish will begin their Clemson-specific prep on Thursday, rather than waiting until Monday as would be the case with most idle weeks. Notre Dame spent Monday and Wednesday weight-training, taking Tuesday off entirely, somewhat inverting the off week’s usual work-then-rest routine.

“We’ll tackle on Saturday. We want to get Saturday to feel like a game kind of operation, so we maintain a routine that they come back in Sunday with treatment and then we go through our normal in-week preparation.”

Well, only as normal as it can be, considering the Irish last played the same opponent twice in one season back in 1997, losing the Independence Bowl to No. 15 LSU after beating the Tigers in mid-November.