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6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 17, 2020

Clemson needs to win the ACC Championship more than Notre Dame does, but in college football, nothing is certain. Even if all signs point to the Irish still being selected whether they win or lose this weekend, nothing can be assumed.

Everything sets up for this to be another close game and both teams want to do things better this time around than they did in the first matchup. Clemson has questions they need to answer to be better and so does Notre Dame.

With that in mind, the first part of 6 Thoughts this week is going to be dedicated to two big questions for each program heading into what could be a College Football Playoff eliminator for at least one team.

The first one is for the Irish.

Can they limit giving up the big play on defense?

What made the Irish defensive performance against North Carolina so impressive wasn’t just that they stopped UNC’s two dynamic backs, it was that they did that and also didn’t allow Sam Howell and the passing game to go off with explosive plays. They gave up a 51-yard completion on the second drive, but there wasn’t much there for the Tar Heels after that.

This wasn’t the case against Clemson. Notre Dame gave up seven completions of 20-yards or more. Cornell Powell was the biggest problem as he had two receptions for over 50. He burned TaRiq Bracy and Nick McCloud on that day and has been doing the same thing to everyone else since then.

In his last four games he has 27 catches for 532 yards (133 yards per game). He’s averaging 19.7 per reception. He’s been smoking teams versus press coverage, but most Notre Dame fans will recall that he beat Bracy when the corner was lined up in off coverage.

Clemson has too many weapons to put extra attention on Powell. If they do that, it gives Travis Etienne more chances to run against a lighter box. If they try to bracket Powell, Amari Rodgers is a threat any time he gets a favorable one on one matchup.

It’s going to have to start with the pass rush and then go from there. If Trevor Lawrence has time, we can expect another 400-yard type of day for Clemson. He’s a 75% passer and averaging 10.6 yards per attempt without pressure.

2. For Clemson, can they get Travis Etienne going in this game? He hasn’t gone off in a game since they played Boston College.

Everyone saw what Notre Dame did to Etienne in the first matchup. They took a player who was having a Heisman caliber season (148.6 yards from scrimmage per game) and pretty much shut him down. He hasn’t been able to get going again after the Notre Dame game with only 78 and 67 yards from scrimmage in the next two, which is less than what he was averaging in one game.

The question isn’t whether or not Notre Dame can shut down Etienne. They have already proven they can do that. It’s whether or not Clemson can make their most talented offensive skill player a bigger part of the game to help them get the win. I expect them to get him lined up wide more to see if he can get matched up against linebackers in the passing game.

3. Can Notre Dame make Trevor Lawrence look mortal?

There really has been only one team that has been able to do that. It was LSU in last year’s national championship game. He finished the game completing less than 50% of his throws and Clemson was 1 of 11 on 3rd down. ESPN had him down for 17 balls where he overthrew his receiver.

Pressure is obviously going to be important. I went into why that is last week so I won’t go too deep into it this time. Pressure doesn’t necessarily mean more blitzing, though. LSU affected Lawrence without blitzing and confusing him with coverage. (Repeating it from last week, he was only 9 of 20 for 3.9 YPA when he wasn’t blitzed versus LSU)

The Irish front four should play great against the run like they have for most of the season. They need to play like they did against North Carolina when rushing the passer on Saturday. We didn’t see it in the last matchup, but I do wonder if Clark Lea will go back to that Bear front that worked well against Clemson back in 2018, but end up dropping one of the edge defenders on most of those plays.

4. Will Brent Venables stick with the blitz?

Venables came after Ian Book a lot in the first matchup. He blitzed him on 26 of 47 drop backs. (55.3%). Though Book completed only 54.5% of his passes, he averaged 9.1 YPA. He threw the ball away five times and was sacked once.

He only scrambled three times when blitzed (six times total). If the intention is to get Book to not run, blitzing less isn’t a sure way to prevent that. They had a 31.9% pressure rate despite all of the blitzing.

It feels strange to say their defense, which is second in Havoc Rate and seventh in sack rate, isn’t nearly as good at getting pressure on the quarterback this season. They don’t have any dominant pass rushers in their front four, even when Tyler Davis is healthy. They greatly miss Isaiah Simmons as a blitzer as well.

They just haven’t hit home as much when they bring blitzers and they feel like they have to because they haven’t consistently win with four rushers.

Venables isn’t Don Brown. He’s going to do something different to be better against Book in this game. I think we’ll see him attack Josh Lugg or Zeke Correll with plenty of twists up front, but do it more with four and five rushers.

5. This has been one of the busiest weeks I can remember covering Notre Dame football with the ACC Championship game coming up, Clark Lea leaving for Vanderbilt (after the season), and the start of the signing period. 6 Thoughts are a lot easier to write in this type of week compared to a random Thursday in June.

I have way more than just a couple of recruiting thoughts on the class Notre Dame just signed. I’ll save a few for next week, but I wanted to mention that this class features the highest grades I’ve given to an offensive lineman (Blake Fisher‍ ), receiver (Lorenzo Styles Jr.‍), linebacker (Prince Kollie‍), and defensive tackle (Gabriel Rubio‍) since I started grading recruits at the tail end of the 2017 class.

I understand that there are always going to be fans hoping for more elite talent and there are more “projects” in this class than in a typical non-Covid year, but the top end of this class is very, very good. If they hit big on a couple of those “projects”, they have before, then this could be up there with the best classes Brian Kelly has signed at Notre Dame.

6. I know that every Notre Dame fan is disappointed to see Lea leave. I think it’s appropriate to say he’s been the best defensive coordinator for the Irish since Barry Alvarez.

Lea is fantastic at his job and some had hoped he would be, unofficially, the head coach in waiting. That’s not happening now that he’ll be the head coach somewhere else, but if fans want to know if Lea is capable of one day being the head coach at Notre Dame, there might not be a better testing ground than Vanderbilt.

No one is going to expect Lea to win SEC East titles going against Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee every year, but how he does in the toughest job in the toughest league in the country will say a lot about whether or not he can succeed at Notre Dame one day down the road.

Notre Dame will get to see how well he can build a staff, how well he can recruit as a head coach, and, most importantly, how well he can perform without the same advantages as his competition.

Think of what Matt Campbell has been able to do at Iowa State and that’s the bar Lea will be trying to reach, but in a much tougher league.

I think everyone will be rooting for him to succeed there. If he does, then this next month might not be the last we see of him in South Bend.

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