Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
This has been a spectacular season for Notre Dame, as the undefeated Fighting Irish (12-0) have been tested in games against Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Northwestern, Syracuse and USC, and head coach Brian Kelly‘s team has come up with the winning formula in every one.
The reward for Notre Dame is a spot in the College Football Playoff against the Clemson Tigers (13-0), a team that has joined Alabama as one of the two elite programs in college football.
The Fighting Irish and Tigers are competing in the Cotton Bowl for the right to play the winner of the Alabama-Oklahoma game for the national championship. In this piece, we look at the key matchups for Notre Dame and Clemson.
Cotton Bowl at a Glance
Cotton Bowl (Playoff Semifinal): No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Clemson
Point spread (per OddsShark): Clemson -13
Stadium: AT&T Stadium
Date: December 29
Time: 4 p.m. ET
Quarterback Ian Book is the key to Notre Dame’s offense. Once Kelly decided to go with Book as his starting quarterback early in the season, the Fighting Irish offense stepped up a couple of notches.
In addition to Book’s accuracy, his confidence and consistency seemed to strike a chord with his teammates, and Notre Dame made clutch play after clutch play.
Book completed 197 of 280 passes for 2,468 yards with 19 TDs and just six interceptions. He also recorded 250 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and while he is not a running quarterback in the classic sense, he can get away from the initial phase of the rush.
How well he can do that against Clemson will be a key factor in this game. He is going to have to contend with defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.
Ferrell is Clemson’s leading sacker with 10.5 quarterback traps, and every time Book takes a snap, he is going to have to account for Ferrell’s presence. He usually lines up on the left side (Book’s right side), but he can move around quite on the defensive front and search for the weak spot.
Wilkins is also a huge factor on the defensive interior with 52 tackles and 5.0 sacks, while Bryant has contributed 35 tackles and 6.0 sacks.
That’s why this is such a difficult assignment for Book and the Fighting Irish, and it helps to explain why the Tigers are favored by 13 points. As good as Ferrell is as, and as dominant as he can be, Bryant and Wilkins could take over if Notre Dame finds a way to slow down Clemson’s leading sacker.
The Irish have a multidimensional offense, and running back Dexter Williams is also a huge factor. Williams is an excellent runner who piled up 941 rushing yards and scored 12 touchdowns with a 6.6 yards per carry average in 2018.
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In addition to having to overcome Ferrell, Bryant and Wilkins, Williams is going to have to get past middle linebacker Tre Lamar. The Clemson defense is one of the nation’s best units when it comes to stopping the run, and he has 74 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.
Fellow linebacker Isaiah Simmons leads the Tigers in tackles with 83 stops and 8.0 tackles for loss. Both Lamar and Simmons will take every Notre Dame rushing attempt personally.
The battle in the running game may be the most important when it comes to getting Notre Dame’s offense going. If the Irish can’t run and Clemson comes to the conclusion that Book is going to have to drop back and throw to his receivers on close to an every-down basis, it will make a difficult assignment nearly impossible.
Wideouts Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool are Book’s two most productive targets. Boykin has caught 54 passes for 803 yards and eight touchdowns, while Claypool has added 48 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns.
Cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Trayvon Mullen will have the primary responsibilities when it comes to slowing down Boykin and Claypool. Terrell has six passes broken up and two interceptions in addition to 42 tackles, while Mullen has four passes broken up and 26 tackles.
Clemson has one of the most versatile and high-powered offenses in college football. It starts with quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has completed 212 of 326 passes for 2,606 yards with 24 TD passes and just four interceptions. Lawrence is not a running quarterback, either, but he can slide in the pocket, buy time and give his receivers a chance to get open.
Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara will have to find a way to get to Lawrence and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. He has 7.0 sacks along with 37 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss. Okwara teams with defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who is going to provide pressure up the middle. Tillery leads Notre Dame with 8.0 sacks, and he will be a tough matchup for Clemson center Justin Falcinelli.
Running back Travis Etienne is one of the best at his position in the nation. Etienne has spectacular numbers, as he has run for 1,463 yards while averaging 8.3 yards per carry. He has 21 rushing touchdowns and one more as a receiver.
Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney and free safety Alohi Gilman are their team’s leading tacklers and will have the biggest responsibility for slowing down Etienne. Coney leads the Fighting Irish with 107 tackles, and he has also recorded 9.0 tackles for loss. Gilman, meanwhile, has 76 stops and two forced fumbles.
Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers are Clemson’s best receivers. Higgins has caught 52 passes for 802 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Rodgers is nearly as productive with 47 receptions for 519 yards and four scores.
Cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. are going to have to keep Higgins and Rodgers from dominating in this game. Love has 61 tackles, 15 passes broken up and one interception, while Pride has broken up nine passes and two interceptions.