Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly reflects on the changes that were made after 4-8 season in 2016: ‘We didn’t reinvent the wheel here’
Mike Berardino, IndyStar
Set to meet Dec. 29 in the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame and Clemson have only played each other three times before. The last meeting was a top-15 showdown in 2015, which the Tigers won 24-22 thanks to a defensive stop on a 2-point try. Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer aren’t around anymore. So what should Clemson fans expect from the Fighting Irish this time around?
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN NOTRE DAME HAS THE BALL
Trying to win a shootout with Clemson might not be advisable after the Irish finished 34th nationally with a 33.8 scoring average. That figure, however, spiked to 37.2 after senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was benched in the wake of a shaky 3-0 start. Led by breakout star Miles Boykin, who had seven of his team-high eight touchdown grabs after Ian Book took over at quarterback, a tall and physical receiving corps will try to push around the smaller Clemson defensive backs. Book, whose completion percentage of 70.4 could break Jimmy Clausen’s school record from 2009, will try to avoid the big mistake while finding his playmakers in stride on safe crossing routes and slants underneath the coverage. A revamped offensive line that sent two top-10 draft picks (Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey) to the NFL has been outstanding despite losing team captain Alex Bars, the starting left guard, to a season-ending knee injury against Stanford. Senior captain Sam Mustipher, a finalist for the Rimington Award, leads the way at center. A long tradition of outstanding Notre Dame tight ends hasn’t carried through to this year’s team, where the enigmatic Alize Mack managed just 34 catches and three touchdowns, with two of those coming against woeful Florida State.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Half of defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s team-leading eight sacks came against Stanford back on Sept. 29, but he has the ability to dominate opponents and draw double teams. So do speed rusher Julian Okwara (seven sacks) and powerful end Khalid Kareem (4.5 sacks), who key a deep stash of talented linemen. Middle linebacker Te’von Coney was voted the unit’s MVP after reaching 100 tackles for the second straight season. Outside linebacker Drue Tranquill, who fought through hand and ankle injuries over the final eight games, should be (mostly) healthy. All-America cornerback Julian Love is the school’s all-time leader in pass breakups, and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman teamed with junior safety Jalen Elliott to give the Irish a powerful 1-2 punch up the middle. Notre Dame ranked eighth in yards per play allowed (4.53) and tied for ninth in scoring defense at 17.3. Irish defenders also produced 20 takeaways, including at least one interception in all but three games.
PLAYER THAT COULD MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
Senior running back Dexter Williams calls himself the Juice Man, due in part to the energy he spreads throughout the team with his outgoing personality. Just as vitally, Williams has breakaway speed that produced eight runs of at least 30 yards, including touchdown scampers of 97, 58, 52 and 45 yards. The Winter Garden, Fla., product often seems to produce these lightning bolts when Notre Dame needs them most. He also has improved his blitz pickup and receiving ability, although he isn’t the most consistent performer in either area.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO FOR NOTRE DAME
After outscoring opponents 112-30 in the opening quarter during the regular season, the Irish get off to another fast start to build confidence and introduce doubt into the favored Tigers. Fully recovered from rib/kidney bruises suffered at Northwestern on Nov. 3, quarterback Ian Book picks apart the Clemson secondary with his uncanny accuracy. The underrated Irish pass rush makes life miserable for freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and Notre Dame adds to its plus-5 turnover margin that included just three lost fumbles all year.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO FOR NOTRE DAME
For just the third time all year, the Irish defense lets an opponent reach the end zone on its first possession. Flashbacks immediately kick in as another speed-laden opponent from the South gets rolling, and an Alabama-style beatdown, circa the 2012 BCS Championship Game, becomes a real possibility. Keeping Book upright in the face of a ferocious Clemson pass rush becomes problematic, and a running game that already runs hot and cold goes missing amid an early deficit. Suddenly, all the progress of a 12-0 season is squandered amid national questions about whether the Irish truly belonged on such a stage.
Follow IndyStar Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter at @MikeBerardino.