Clemson-Notre Dame ACC Championship Week: Q&A preview with Irish Breakdown

by - Contributor -
The Tigers and Irish played an instant classic in early November. (ACC photo).
The Tigers and Irish played an instant classic in early November. (ACC photo).

Prior to the Tigers' first matchup with Notre Dame, we connected with Bryan Driskell of Irish Breakdown for an inside perspective on the Irish. He shared some great insights so we’ve invited him back to once again answer our questions about the No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Ryan Kantor: Coach Swinney called Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime win over Clemson an “instant classic.” It’s hard to argue that point, but some Clemson writers have dismissed the victory saying it came against “Diet Clemson,” because of all the injuries. After seeing Notre Dame win, but need double-OT to do it at home against a severely depleted Clemson team, does the previous matchup make you more or less confident heading into this one?

Driskell: I wrote an article about the two narratives coming out of both fan bases after that win. For Clemson it’s the constant drumbeat of who they didn’t have, as if Clemson trotted out a bunch of walk-ons to play against Notre Dame. And if Clemson fans want to use the who didn’t play argument, then can Clemson fans acknowledge that when Julian Love was on the field in 2018 the Tigers could not score?

For Notre Dame fans, their narrative is the game wouldn’t have been close if not for a dropped pass that negated what would have been a score, a false start that wiped out a touchdown run and a fumble into the end zone in the third quarter. It wasn’t exactly a clean game for Notre Dame either.

I think too much is made of how one particular matchup went. Neither team was at their best, but both teams battled hard and in the end the Irish made fewer mistakes. And this game will be determined by which staff puts together the best plan, which team wins the battle in the trenches, which team’s playmakers make the most plays, and who makes the fewest mistakes. If Notre Dame plays their game they can compete with and beat this version of Clemson.

Kantor: Barring a blowout or a Florida upset over Alabama, Notre Dame is likely locked into the College Football Playoff even if they lose. Nevertheless, a win over Clemson would give Notre Dame their first championship of any consequence since Coach Lou Holtz made them Cotton Bowl Champs in 1993 (they last won the National Championship in 1988). Is there something special about a chance to win the ACC Championship or is it more just a step towards the ultimate goal?

Driskell: A little bit of both if we’re being honest. I think an ACC Championship would certainly be something this team should take a great deal of pride in. When you consider a title would also come with beating Clemson twice it makes it even more special. Clemson has been the premier team in college football in the last five years, and beating them once is hard enough, doing it twice would make for a tremendous season.

However, this is still Notre Dame, and the ultimate judge for a season is whether or not it ends with a national title. Winning the ACC would be a tremendous accomplishment, but it’s not the end game.

Kantor: When we last spoke, I don’t think either of us were particularly high on QB Ian Book. Coming into the first Clemson vs. Notre Dame Game, Ian Book was only averaging 204 passing yards, 1.17 passing TDs, and 35 rushing yards per game. From that game on, he has averaged 289 passing yards, 2 passing TDs, and 63 rushing yards per game. What’s changed?

Driskell: He’s playing with more confidence. My issue with Book was never about his talent, it was his unwillingness to be aggressive, his inability to make plays against top teams, and a complete unwillingness to take any kind of chances. In the last four games he’s been quite aggressive, he’s making a lot of plays with his legs and he’s attempting passes that I used to wish he would try, but he rarely did it.

That has allowed Notre Dame’s playmakers to thrive, and we’ve seen Javon McKinley absolutely breakout during that stretch. McKinley has topped 100 yards three times in the last four games, including his 5-catch, 102-yard performance against Clemson. McKinley has had more games with 100+ yards this season than Chase Claypool (3) or Miles Boykin (3) had when they were the top receivers. Only Michael Floyd tied that mark, and only Will Fuller topped it.

Book has been spreading the ball around much better lately as well, and it’s a byproduct of him doing a better job working through his progressions and taking what the defense gives him.

Kantor: Notre Dame held Clemson to just one yard per carry. Last week against Virginia Tech, Clemson used more zone read and two tight end sets (12 personnel) to help their running game, and it seemed to work. Do you believe Notre Dame will be able to limit Clemson’s running game again or will schematic tweaks and the return of Trevor Lawrence change things?

Driskell: Clemson certainly looked better against Virginia Tech, but the Hokies did give up 399 to North Carolina, 249 to Liberty, 206 to Wake Forest and 198 to Louisville. Notre Dame’s Syracuse performance aside - and more than 80 of those yards came against the backups - this has been an elite run defense all season.

I do not expect Notre Dame to dominate the Clemson run game the way it did in the first matchup. Having Lawrence as a run option makes it harder to keep Clemson in check. If you over-pursue or commit too many resources to slowing down Etienne then you run the risk of Lawrence pulling it and beating you.

But Notre Dame has handled that well this season, and its speed at linebacker and the presence of Kyle Hamilton at safety gives this defense the range and athleticism to handle those looks.

At the end of the day, Clemson’s success at running the ball, or Notre Dame’s success at stopping the run, will come down to the battle up front. Notre Dame dominated the Clemson offensive line in the first matchup, and that unit will need to play a lot better to give the Tigers a chance to outscore the Irish

Kantor: Notre Dame moved the ball effectively against Clemson’s defense last time. What did you feel they did particularly well and what do you think they can replicate against the healthy version of Clemson’s defense?

Driskell: Notre Dame ripped off big plays against Clemson, and did so early. Ripping off that big run early and getting the ball over top in the first half had the Tiger defense off balance for much of the first half. Brent Venables made adjustments at halftime and kept the Irish in check, but once again the Irish used big plays on the final drive to get the game into overtime.

We’ve seen Notre Dame repeat that same recipe in games against Boston College, North Carolina and Syracuse. It’s been able to beat teams down the field with the pass game and wear opponents down with the run game. They’ll certainly try that against Clemson, but I have a feeling Brent Venables is going to have some unique looks and stunts designed to shut the run game down, putting the game on Book’s shoulders. If offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can counter punch the Irish should be fine, but if he is as slow to adjust to Clemson’s pressures as he was against North Carolina it could be trouble for the Irish.

Thank you to Bryan for joining us once again and helping us preview the biggest championship game in ACC history. Please follow Bryan on twitter at @CoachD178 and me at @Ryan_Kantor.

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