And In That Corner … Clemson, again, stands between Notre Dame and the ACC title

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Not to be lost in the shuffle of this week’s early signing period — which extends through Friday and may yet include a Notre Dame signature or two — the sequel to the Game of the Year is still this weekend, and though a conference championship game may be new territory for the No. 2 Irish, it is an old habit for No. 3 Clemson, reaching its sixth conference title game in a row.

If the Nov. 7 tilt was in danger of being over-hyped, the double-overtime nailbiter made sure to deliver. Will this rematch, this Round II offer the same drama (4 ET; ABC)? Let’s walk through the build-up with Matt Connolly of The State.

DF: Well, Matt, we’re back, and some (??) things have changed.

I don’t know where to start. It’s not just that Notre Dame and Clemson did this once or that I wasn’t around covering the Irish in 1997, the last time they faced one team (LSU) twice in a season. It’s that November’s matchup was an instant-classic, double-overtime, thriller. No one thinks we’re about to top that, right?

Then again, Round II will include Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence. On one hand, backup D.J. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns in November; how much more could Lawrence really have done? On the other, he is Trevor Lawrence.

In discussing how things change facing Lawrence this week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly suggested the Irish defense will have to worry more about quarterback runs, “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. Just being a little bit more locked into some quarterback runs, perhaps would be the only slight difference.”

How much should Notre Dame worry about Lawrence on the ground? What other offensive changes does he bring compared to what Uiagalelei showed six weeks ago?

MC: Trevor Lawrence is a really good runner, and it’s a part of his game that continues to get overlooked. He had seven carries for 41 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson’s most-recent game against Virginia Tech, and in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal, he had 16 carries for 107 yards and a score against Ohio State. Over the years, Clemson has relied on the quarterback run in big games, whether it be Deshaun Watson, Kelly Bryant or Lawrence, and this certainly qualifies as a big game. D.J. Uiagalelei is a very capable runner as well, but he didn’t get many opportunities in South Bend as he was coming off of a shoulder injury and Clemson wanted to protect him.

As for other changes, I wouldn’t expect a ton. Uiagalelei can make all the throws, as Notre Dame fans are aware of after he passed for the most yards ever by an opposing quarterback against the Irish. Lawrence can certainly make every throw as well. If anything, Lawrence’s decision-making with zone reads and RPOs might be a bit better due to his experience, but I wouldn’t expect a ton of changes.

I’d like to focus specifically on senior receiver Cornell Powell. Though he did catch 11 passes for 105 yards the week before facing the Irish, his 6-catch, 161-yard showing in South Bend felt like his coming-out party. Since then, Powell has caught 10 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns.

Where did this come from? Did you anticipate his emergence at all?

It’s funny you say that. Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott referred to the Notre Dame game as Powell’s coming-out-party as well earlier this week. The coaching staff couldn’t say enough good things about Powell during preseason camp and he seemed poised for a breakout year. However, when he got off to a slow start, I think there were questions about if he would ever become a top wideout for the Tigers. He has certainly put those questions to bed now. 

Talent has never been an issue for Powell; it was simply attention to detail and putting in the extra work. When Lawrence missed time with COVID-19, Dabo Swinney challenged Powell to step up and help the freshman passer. Powell took the challenge to heart and responded the right way. I think he gained confidence making plays for Uiagalelei and just continued his improved play once Lawrence returned.

Powell’s play at Boston College before facing Notre Dame could have been then seen as a one-game flash, but a four-game stretch of 27 catches for 532 yards (compared to 14 and 152 in the season’s first six contests) indicates he is a genuine offensive threat and a worthwhile complement to classmate Amari Rodgers. Aside from Powell’s literal statistics, how has his emergence changed Clemson’s offense?

It’s forcing defenses to pick their poison. You can’t take away Rodgers and Powell and still stack the box to try to stop Travis Etienne. Clemson does a good job of taking what the defense gives it, whether it be one-on-one matchups with Rodgers or Powell, handing the ball off to Etienne, tossing it to Etienne out of the backfield or Lawrence keeping the ball himself and using his legs.

Defensively, the question of “What’s changed?” hinges on “Who is healthy?” The most notable names in November on the Tigers injured list (aside from Lawrence) were linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones, and defensive tackle Tyler Davis. I believe Jones is back and full-go, but in his return Clemson now loses Jake Venables to a broken arm. Is that a net-neutral?

I think Jones being out was probably a bigger blow now that Skalski may be fully healthy and ready to go. Jones is a full-time starter, while Venables is Skalski’s backup. With that said, Venables was productive this season when he was needed.

And Skalski and Davis are back, at least to some degree, right? The Tigers rested Skalski in the second half against Virginia Tech on Dec. 5. Was that purely precautionary? Is he 100 percent? How about Davis?

Skalski was sore against Virginia Tech and only played five snaps. I don’t see him missing the game, but I’m almost not sure he’s 100 percent.

Davis played a season-high 36 snaps against Virginia Tech and should be good to go. If Skalski is limited it would be a huge loss with Venables already ruled out. Third-string linebacker Kane Patterson would be forced into action. He’s played 103 snaps all year, with 49 of those coming in the last two games.

I would argue Davis and Skalski mean as much in this rematch as Lawrence does. Notre Dame ran for 208 yards in its upset. That allowed the Irish offense to remain calm even as it couldn’t score for 59 minutes, and when it needed a big play, Ian Book was not pressured. Kelly said, “As we looked at the last couple of games over the weekend, not as many pressures (as against us), and it could be maybe because they had their captain (Skalski) out on defense, and they wanted to slow some things down. We’ll be prepared for a little bit of everything from what they do defensively.” Will Clemson and defensive coordinator Brent Venables dial up more aggressive blitzes in Charlotte?

I think so, but Clemson also blitzed some in Round 1. Notre Dame just did a nice job of picking them up. Venables had a lot of praise for Notre Dame’s offensive line this week but also said Clemson defenders need to do a better job of getting off blocks and winning one-on-one matchups.

These thoughts have largely been from this viewpoint. What did you see from Notre Dame in November that you’d expect more of or that the Tigers may focus on slowing down?

I saw a really, really good football team and one that is much better than the Notre Dame team I saw in 2018. Ian Book is a winner and competitor. Kyren Williams is fast and shifty. The tight ends and receivers can make contested catches. And defensively there are athletes all over the field. The team speed seemed much better than in 2018.

I think in football the line of scrimmage is so important, and Notre Dame dominated on both sides of the ball the first time around. I think the biggest areas of concern for Clemson are establishing the run and trying to stop the run.

We’re looking at a 10.5-point spread as of Thursday morning. I’d argue that hints at Clemson needing this win more than the Irish do. Is there any added impetus there these days? This is the closest the Tigers have been to not playing for the national championship since Lawrence arrived, and the closest they have been to missing the Playoffs since 2014. As you pointed out last week, “Clemson’s previous five ACC championship wins were against: No. 10 North Carolina, No. 23 Virginia Tech, No. 7 Miami, unranked Pitt and No. 23 Virginia.”

I don’t know that it hints at Clemson needing to win the game more. I think both teams view this as a huge opportunity and a game they really want to win. It’s more that people saw Clemson’s backup quarterback throw for more than 400 yards on the road in a game where Clemson had a late lead. I also think a lot was made (rightfully so) about Clemson being down three of its top defenders that night. A lot of people, and it doesn’t mean that they’re right, believe that with both teams healthy and on a neutral field, Clemson is about 10 points better. At this point, with the games Clemson has won in recent years, there aren’t nerves or uneasiness going into a game like this. There’s a lot of confidence.

I also think there’s a decent chance Clemson still gets into the Playoff with a loss.

I am not saying this pressure is new — Clemson has been in five straight Playoffs, after all — but that one team may be facing more of it right now than the other. Your lean?

I think Clemson pulls it out, but man, I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I’m not one of those people who believe that with Clemson healthy the Tigers will just roll to a win. Notre Dame is a legit top-four team with a ton of talent, and just as I predicted a Round 2 meeting when we chatted the first time, I wouldn’t be stunned if there’s a Round 3 down the road.