This week, Andrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna are taking a look at the pivotal matchups in Saturday’s Notre Dame-Clemson game.
Up today: Notre Dame defensive backs vs. Clemson wide receivers
Notre Dame DBs (Fortuna): Before the season, Notre Dame’s secondary looked primed to be one of the Fighting Irish’s strongest position groups in 2015. Through four games, it has been somewhat of a mixed bag.
Cole Luke's interception last week accounts for the only pick of the season by the secondary. The Irish gave up 302 passing yards to UMass. Two weeks earlier, they surrendered 289 yards and had trouble stopping Virginia’s Matt Johns, who was yanked last week after throwing two pick-sixes in a blowout loss to Boise State.
For the season, the Irish are surrendering 203.75 passing yards per game, which ranks 55th nationally. They surrendered long passes on gadget plays to both Virginia and UMass, and Brian Kelly sees no reason why opposing offenses shouldn’t continue trying tricks given the Irish’s apparent vulnerability to them.
“I would continue to run them,” the sixth-year Irish coach said this week. “I certainly think our defensive coaches are well aware of that eventuality, and we've had a conversation about it. We'll have to continue to certainly pick up our keys and be more aware of them."
Still, there is reason for optimism. Outside of two big plays, the secondary played well Saturday. It was terrific against Georgia Tech, although that triple-option offense was certainly a different kind of test from the one the Irish will face in Death Valley. High-end NFL prospect KeiVarae Russell has steadily improved each game since returning from his 2014 suspension, and he has been an answer for the Irish at the nickelback spot since freshman starter Shaun Crawford went down in camp with an ACL tear. Talented safety Max Redfield should be a bigger factor moving forward after dealing with a broken thumb earlier this season. Fellow safety Elijah Shumate is the group’s leading tackler, with his 25 stops ranking third on the team overall. And, of course, there is fifth-year jack-of-all-trades Matthias Farley, a captain and leader whose big-game experience will be counted on Saturday, and who immediately made his presence felt upon filling in for the injured Drue Tranquill (ACL) two weeks ago.
Is all of that enough to stop Clemson’s attack? Lapses will be less forgivable against the Tigers, but the talent is there for Notre Dame to present Deshaun Watson and his pass-catchers a challenge. Couple it with the apparent strong edge the Irish’s D-line will have against Clemson’s green O-line, and the defense as a whole is a definite reason for optimism for Notre Dame as it looks to escape Clemson victorious.
Clemson WRs (Adelson): Ask Clemson coach Dabo Swinney how much his team has missed top receiver Mike Williams. “Not much right now. We haven’t really needed him,” Swinney said. He does have a point -- Clemson is 3-0. But there is little doubt the Tigers wish they had their All-ACC receiver against Notre Dame to stretch the field. Because that is one area where Clemson is having difficulty with Williams sidelined.
So far on the season, Clemson has seven pass plays that have gone 25 or more yards, an average of about two per game. Last year, that average was three per game -- even with an inconsistent offense featuring Cole Stoudt behind center. Williams accounted for a whopping 42 percent of those explosive plays in 2014, dramatically illustrating his impact on the deep passing game.
Deshaun Watson's numbers illustrate that, too. Last year, he averaged 10.7 yards per attempt. This year, that number is down to 8.2. While Swinney says the game plan against Louisville would have been the same with or without Williams, you wonder whether the Tigers can rely on the shorter passes that got them past the Cards against a more athletic defense.
Artavis Scott has proved he can move it in a hurry after contact. So can Ray-Ray McCloud. The two have combined for 33 of the team’s 72 receptions. But this is a game where veteran Charone Peake needs to make a name for himself once and for all. Perhaps even true freshman Deon Cain. It is an opportunity for Germone Hopper to step up, too. Because chances are Notre Dame is going to load up the box and collapse on the short passing game, daring Clemson to try and make some plays deep -- knowing there is nobody proven to stretch the field.
“If there’s one thing I’m not worried about, it’s receiver. That’s the least of my concerns,” Swinney said. “When people are going to challenge us to throw the ball, we’ll be just fine, because we’ve got the best quarterback in the country and we’ve got some freaks out there at wideout.”