When Dabo Swinney ponders the differences between Clemson’s blowout of Notre Dame in the 2018 Playoff semifinals and the Irish double-overtime victory in November, he sees the same edges for the winning teams, despite the flipped scores and opposites in drama. The Tigers leaned on big plays and veterans along the interior to enjoy that 30-3 rout, just like Notre Dame’s experienced offensive line plowed the way six weeks ago until Ian Book found Avery Davis deep to bookend regulation with chunk gains.
If Swinney expects a close rematch in the ACC championship game in Charlotte on Saturday (4 ET; ABC), it’s because he recognizes those strengths.
“They were a great team in ‘18,” Swinney said Sunday. “If you go back and look at that game, we made just a few explosive (plays) that kind of separated it and once we got a lead, it was our defense that won the day there.
“Book was a couple years younger, and all these big monster offensive linemen that they’ve got that are all graduates now, they were a couple years younger. We were kind of the reverse. We had all those vets on the D-line, and they were a little younger.
“This year, it’s the opposite. We don’t have any seniors on the D-line, and they’ve got a bunch of graduates.”
Three of Clemson’s defensive linemen from the 2018 Cotton Bowl were drafted in the first 17 picks the following April; Notre Dame is still starting four of its offensive linemen from that afternoon. Things have indeed reversed.
Those four obviously include fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer, now “good to go” per Irish head coach Brian Kelly after an emergency appendectomy last month. He will flank either sophomore Zeke Correll or senior Josh Lugg at center, Correll returning from an ankle sprain and Lugg with a bit more experience, a decision Kelly does not intend to make until game day.
That line leads the way for the ground attack that gained 208 yards against the Tigers in November, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Even if removing Kyren Williams’ 65-yard touchdown run on the first official play from scrimmage — the kind of explosive play Swinney was referencing — Notre Dame averaged 3.7 yards per carry, perhaps a middling performance most days but an exemplary one when compared to Clemson’s single yard per rush.
“You can see [our offense] is built on a strong running game, the ability to still spread the field, but to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and it’s matching what our philosophy is on defense,” Kelly said. “Stop the run, run the football.”
As much as the 2018 Tigers were feared for their downfield receiving threats, stopping the run and running the football was that team’s bread and butter, as well. They averaged 6.55 yards per rush and 248 yards per game while giving up only 2.5 per attempt and 96 per game. The dynamic ground game forced defenses to compromise their pass defense, which then led to downfield passes exploiting the defense, like 52- and 42-yard scores in that semifinal second quarter.
Notre Dame currently averages 5.4 yards per rush and 235 yards per game, giving up only 3.3 per attempt and 99.7 per game. As the season has progressed, that ground game has allowed Book to develop a downfield ability with fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley.
“From the beginning of the year to now, their ability to throw the football has made them even more dangerous because they’ve been able to run the ball well,” Swinney said. “… The ball is going downfield. You can’t sit back and play a bunch of zone coverage on these guys or they’ll run the ball right at you. You’re going to have some one-on-one matchups, and we have to do a better job avoiding some of those plays.”
Aside from the inverted experience along the lines, Swinney did not make the direct comparisons to his 2018 team, but given how it picked apart Notre Dame in the same way the Irish have dissected many opponents this year, those parallels stand out as he explains his worries about the coming weekend. They all played a part in Notre Dame winning the November turnover margin 3-to-1, holding Clemson to a season-low 27 percent third-down conversion rate and rendering the Travis Etienne-led running game rather inept. Given all those facts, Swinney expressed some shock that instant classic was even close, let alone needing two extra periods.
“It’s amazing we even had a chance to win the game, to be honest with you,” he said. “… Our guys fought hard, but those are things we’ll have to clean up. … There’s just a lot of things we have to do better to have a chance to beat a great team like Notre Dame.”
All those “things” give Swinney a bit of reason to politick this week. If he was not worried about losing again to the Irish, he would not feel the need to point out the Tigers have already won nine games, a few steps up on other Playoff contenders, even if the two ACC finalists unexpectedly had the weekend off.
“There’s no question in my mind, these are two of the best teams in the country,” Swinney said. “… If the ACC was trying to really ‘protect’ Clemson and Notre Dame, why would we even play the game this week?
“If six wins can get you in the Playoff, shouldn’t nine get you there? Shouldn’t 10 get you there?”
In that respect, Kelly may agree. The No. 2 Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) are not considering if they would be in the Playoff even with a loss this weekend, because they know they would be with a win.
“The Playoffs take care of themselves,” Kelly said. “We can’t control that. For us, will our players understand that if they win that they’re going to be in the Playoffs? Sure, they get that. But they don’t go around thinking, ‘Oh, if we lose …’ That’s just not how we think. We’re not wired that way. We’re wired to think that we’re going to win the football game.”
Many may think there is little chance of that happening, with Notre Dame a 10.5-point underdog, but given the Irish similarities to past Tigers teams, and given Notre Dame already beat Clemson once, Swinney has a more tense suggestion.
“I’ll be shocked if this week’s not even better.”
I worry we are not grateful enough that the ACC title game will be a #NotreDame-Clemson rematch.
We so often assume we'll get a Round 2, but more often than not, sports deny us that joy.https://t.co/7ELpt6icxh
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) December 6, 2020
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