By Johnny Falduto
In a game that many thought would have significant College Football Playoff implications just a couple months ago, Notre Dame travels to Memorial Stadium to take on Clemson for the first time since the Tigers’ memorable 24-22 win in 2015 amid torrential downpour from the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin.
Clemson (4-4, 2-4 ACC) is coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since November of 2011 after falling 24-17 at NC State last Saturday, while No. 15 Notre Dame (7-2) has won their last two against No. 20 Southern Cal and Pitt by a combined score of 106-27.
Clemson Injuries: On Wednesday, Dabo Swinney said that the status of several contributors is still up in the air for Saturday. RB Will Shipley is in concussion protocol and is still day-to-day. He must pass through the protocol to play. DT Peter Woods is back at practice after not traveling to NC State last Saturday with an undisclosed injury, and he remains day-to-day ahead of Notre Dame. Swinney also noted that WR Tyler Brown’s eye is feeling better, and freshman RB Jay Haynes has practiced this week after not traveling the last two games with an ankle injury.
Dabo Swinney in the Headlines: Dabo Swinney was the topic of national conversation this week after ‘Tyler from Spartanburg’ called into his weekly call-in show and asked why Clemson is paying him “$11.5 million to go 4-4,” among other professional and personal attacks. Swinney responded accordingly in a fiery five-minute monologue, saying “I started as the lowest-paid coach in this freakin’ business and I am where I am because I worked my ass off every single day, and I ain’t going to let some smartass kid get on this phone and create this stuff.”
“Is this a bad year? Yeah, and it’s my responsibility. I take 100 percent responsibility for it, but all this bullcrap that you’re thinking and all these narratives you read – listen man, you can have all the opinions that you want, and you can apply for the job — and good luck to ya.”
Swinney, who can become the winningest coach in Clemson history with a victory on Saturday, doubled down on his defense of himself and his program at his Tuesday press conference, saying that “I had some idiot go Old Testament on me and he got an Old Testament response.”
Swinney was surely fired up to return to Death Valley for the first time in nearly a month against a perennial opponent like Notre Dame, but after the week he’s had, it’s not hard to imagine that the intensity has ticked up a few notches. How his team responds on the field remains to be seen.
Mitchell Evans: On Monday, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman confirmed that tight end Mitchell Evans will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. Evans led Notre Dame in receptions (29) and receiving yards (422) through the teams first nine games this season.
Scouting Notre Dame’s Offense
Sixth-year quarterback Sam Hartman leads a Notre Dame offense that ranks 12th in FBS in scoring at 38.3 PPG. Hartman has played against the Tigers four times as a member of Wake Forest, his best work coming in a 337-yard, six TD performance in last year’s memorable double-overtime game that the Tigers won 51-45.
“That guy shouldn’t be playing college football; he’s a pro,” Dabo Swinney said on Tuesday. “He is smooth, he’s poised, he’s very confident, and he doesn’t flinch.” Hartman has totaled 2,126 YDS, 18 TD, and 5 INT through the air this season, and is extremely capable of extending plays on the run or making plays by himself with his feet.
Irish RB Audric Estime is one of 17 players in the country with at least 100 rushing yards per game. On 146 carries this season, the 5-foot 11, 227lb junior has totaled 901 yards, and his 12 rushing touchdowns are tied for fourth-most in FBS. He’s also proven to be a viable option in the passing game, with 13 REC for 109 YDS out of the backfield. Estime went for 104 YDS and 1 TD on 18 CAR in Notre Dame’s 35-14 win over the Tigers last season.
Former RB turned-WR Chris Tyree has accounted for 417 YDS on 19 REC (21.9 AVG) and 3 TD, and he becomes the team’s true No. 1 option in the passing game with TE Mitchell Evans sidelined for the remainder of the season. WRs Jayden Thomas (17 REC, 251 YDS, 1 TD, 14.8 AVG) and Rico Flores Jr. (17 REC, 250 YDS, 1 TD, 14.7 AVG) are also heavily featured in the team’s passing attack.
Up front, OT Joe Alt is among the best tackles in FBS. At 6-foot 8, 320lb, the future First Round NFL Draft pick is the highest-graded tackle in the country, per PFF.
Scouting Notre Dame’s Defense
Defensively, Notre Dame has been one of the best groups in the country. They rank 11th in FBS in yards per game (279.9), 10th in FBS in points per game (15.33), first in FBS with four defensive touchdowns, and third in FBS with 13 interceptions.
MLB JD Bertrand leads the team with 57 total tackles to go along with 1.5 sacks, and Marist Liufau has 34 tackles and 2.5 sacks from the WLB spot. Playing the rover position, Jack Kiser has 43 tackles and a sack and is the 14th-highest rated LB in FBS in overall defense, per PFF.
In the trenches, Howard Cross III has been among the best interior defenders in FBS, ranking 2nd, 11th, and 10th in FBS in PFF’s overall defensive grade, run defense grade, and pass rush grade, respectively. He also ranks third among FBS DL with 29 QB pressures, second with 22 QB hurries, and seventh in QB hits. DT Rylie Mills and DE Javontae Jean-Baptiste have combined for 65 total tackles and 2 sacks, and DB Xavier Watts’ six INTs leads FBS.
Notre Dame is projected to win this game everywhere you look- and for good reason. Dabo Swinney has called the Irish the “most complete team” the Tigers will have seen all season, and the numbers across the board are there to back it up.
As of Thursday, Notre Dame sits as a 3-point favorite on the road via Fanduel, and the O/U is set at 44.5.
ESPN’s SP+ projects a 27-22 ND win, and FEI projects a 22-12 ND win, giving them a 73.8% chance to win. ESPN’s FPI also heavily favors the Irish, giving them a 65.7% chance to leave Death Valley with a win.
Kickoff at Memorial Stadium is set for noon on Saturday. For complete pregame coverage followed by the live play-by-play call, tune into the Clemson Athletic Network right here on theroarfm.com, 97.5/105.5 in the Upstate, or on The ROAR mobile app.