Mike O’Brien ‘23
Chief Sports Editor
In a college football season unlike none other thus far, fans can look forward to a blockbuster matchup between the #1 ranked 7-0 Clemson Tigers and #4 ranked 6-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish this Saturday.
While Notre Dame’s football program is notorious for being independent of any Power Five Conference, this year’s coronavirus pandemic forced their hand due to the importance of conference scheduling, placing them in the ACC, in which their basketball program competes.
Although Clemson and Notre Dame are not bitter conference rivals, there has been some recent history between these two sides. In the 2018 Cotton Bowl, one of the semi-final games leading up to the 2019 National Championship, #1 Clemson routed #4 Notre Dame by a score of 30-3 en route to a victory over Alabama to win it all.
This blowout defeat made many question as to whether Notre Dame deserved to still be considered amongst college football’s elite; there is no doubt that ND has the history and the brand name, but can they actually compete with modern powerhouses like Clemson, Bama, Oklahoma and others?
In response to critics like these questioning the Irish’s legitimacy in the college football world since being steamrolled by Clemson in 2018, head coach Brian Kelly responded last week with “We’re 29-3 in our last 32 games. We’ve won 22 consecutive games at home. We’ve won 12 in a row. I don’t know. You guys decide.”
Kelly has a pretty compelling argument. If any program had these kinds of stats in recent years, it would be hard pressed to nitpick a team with this kind of pedigree. It’s safe to say that of every team in the country on Saturday, Notre Dame will have the biggest chip on their shoulder while looking for redemption.
History aside, let’s look at the forthcoming game itself. If there were ever a time for ND to be able to tame the Tigers, this is the week to do it. Prior to last week’s matchup against Boston College, superstar Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19, sidelining him for the next two games. Without Lawrence at the helm, the far inferior BC gave Clemson the scare of their lives, leading the 2019 CFB Champions 28-13 at halftime.
With a resilient effort, Clemson was able to claw their way back into the game, tightening up their defense to shut out BC in the second half of the game to win by a final score of 34-28. Still, this game was quite a surprise for the college football world, even with Lawrence out, as many expected for Clemson to defeat Boston College handily.
As for the Irish, they have won all of their games comfortably so far, besides a 12-7 defensive tug-of-war against Louisville. Speaking of defense, Notre Dame’s unit has been a cornerstone of their success all of this season so far, allowing just over an average of 10 points per game to their opponents.
However, even without Lawrence, the Irish will still have their hands full with a Clemson offense that has put up a whopping 46.1 points per game thus far. Although ND fans may think they have this game in the bag with Clemson’s stud quarterback out, there has been no stopping Clemson running back Travis Etienne who has rushed for over 600 yards so far this season, with a massively impressive 5.9 yards a carry, as well as tacking on nine touchdowns.
The story of this game may very well come down to whether the Irish can contain Etienne, who looked uncharacteristically sluggish against BC, averaging his second lowest YPC all season with 4.2 and a critical fumble lost at the goalline which BC took for a scoop and score.
The ultimate x-factor for this game could end up being ND senior quarterback Ian Book, who has played formidably so far this season, with 1,225 passing yards (30th best in the country) as well as seven touchdown passes with only one interception. If Book can pace the Irish offense while the defense does what they have all season, watch for Notre Dame to seize the moment to down a Lawrence-less Clemson that struggled against a far inferior opponent last week. I’m predicting a tightly contested Notre Dame victory by a final score of 28-24.