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ACC Spotlight: Clemson vs Notre Dame

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews Clemson vs Notre Dame.

It’s easily the top game of the weekend, and the biggest ACC matchup this year. With that anticipation comes a plethora of storylines.

The most talked about one, of course, is quarterback Trevor Lawrence missing his second straight game because of COVID-19. Even with his absence, the Clemson-Notre Dame showdown has major playoff implications and, due to the Irish’s inclusion in the ACC, conference ramifications as well.

Not to mention, the last time these two programs met in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, Clemson absolutely embarrassed Notre Dame, 30-3. The stakes won’t be quite as high Saturday, but the Irish would love nothing more than a little payback. In order for the Irish to achieve that, they will be counting on quarterback Ian Book shining while its elite defense confuses Clemson’s young backup signal caller.

Without Lawrence, former 5-star prospect D.J. Uiagalelei started behind center against Boston College on Halloween. Clemson started slowly, but behind Uiagalelei’s effort, the Tigers rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the Eagles, 34-28. The freshman quarterback finished the comeback 30 of 41 for 342 passing yards and two touchdowns with 25 rushing yards and an additional score on the ground.

Boston College played better than expected at Death Valley last week, but the question now is how Uiagalelei will fare in his first road start against the No. 1 ACC defense.

Notre Dame leads the conference in points allowed, passing defense, opponent’s third-down conversion percentage and yards allowed. Additionally, the Irish are second in run defense and opponent’s red zone touchdown percentage.

The entire Notre Dame defense is spectacular, but it is particularly great up front on the defensive line. Last weekend against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame recorded 5.0 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss.

Against Boston College, Clemson stayed committed to the running game, racking up 106 yards on the ground, but it took 31 carries. While Tigers star running back Travis Etienne rushed for 84 yards and a score, he averaged only 4.2 yards per carry.

If Etienne can’t do a better job of finding holes against quite possibly the best defense Clemson faces all season, there will be even more pressure on Uiagalelei to make big plays. Of course, Etienne can also be a factor in the passing game. Last week, he led the Tigers with 140 receiving yards and scored a second touchdown through the air.

But what makes Clemson so dangerous is how dominant it can be not just on offense but defensively as well. That was on display in the 2018 Cotton Bowl. Statistically, Clemson’s defense isn’t far behind Notre Dame this year, as it is also ranked in the Top 3 in points allowed, total defense, passing yards allowed and run defense in the ACC. The Tigers have also been far better at producing sacks and takeaways than the Irish this year.

In conclusion, Notre Dame veteran quarterback Ian Book will face just as tough of a test as Uiagalelei. Having played Clemson and other top defensive programs such as Georgia during his college career, Book has more experience, but he also hasn’t won one of those marquee matchups yet.

Notre Dame is one of the last elite football programs that still record more rushing than passing yards. The Irish have averaged 5.1 rushing yards per carry versus 8.0 yards per pass attempt this season, but Notre Dame still has 149 more rushing than passing yards.

But even an elite offensive line such as Notre Dame can’t expect to push around Clemson. Book’s best performance this season came at Pitt two weeks ago when he completed 16 of 30 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns.

Book’s efficiency down field and lack of giveaways have made up for his shortcomings in accuracy. He’s averaging 8.2 yards per pass with seven touchdowns versus one interception while also holding a 61.3 completion percentage. But in this upcoming matchup, Notre Dame will need him to maintain his efficiency while throwing 30-plus times, which is something he’s done just once in his last eight games.

Notre Dame possesses an edge playing at home and against an inexperienced quarterback, but the question of whether Book can carry the Irish offense will need to be answered for Notre Dame to dethrone the Tigers.

Prediction: Clemson 28, Notre Dame 23