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 offensive line vs. Clemson defensive front.
Notre Dame offensive line: C.J. Prosise has been one of the bigger surprises of the college football season. The former safety and receiver got his feet wet as a third-team running back in the spring, ascended to the top of the depth chart after the two guys ahead of him were lost to academics and injury, respectively, and now finds himself as the nation’s fourth-leading rusher with 600 yards through four games. Among the most telling statistics around Prosise this one, via ESPN Stats & Information, might stand out above all: The redshirt junior has gone five or more yards past the line of scrimmage without being contacted on 24 of his 74 carries, which is the highest percentage for any Power-5 running back.
Hats off to Prosise, but plenty of credit for his recent run goes to the big fellas in front of him. The Fighting Irish’s offensive line is their best and deepest yet of the six-year Brian Kelly era, helping to break in two young starting quarterbacks through four games as well. And while the group has not faced anything like the defensive front Clemson presents, the O-line is the biggest reason the Irish have to feel good about themselves going into Death Valley.
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley might have been a first-round NFL Draft pick this past spring, and another year in Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning program has him better than ever. Three-year starter and two-time captain Nick Martin is much better at center this year after playing hurt through much of last season. Quenton Nelson (left guard), Steve Elmer (right guard) and Mike McGlinchey (right tackle) round out a unit that has surrendered just five sacks through four games.
Brian Kelly and his staff have played to this strength, taking pressure off DeShone Kizer under center and letting the offense dictate things on its terms: The Irish’s 284.75 rushing yards per game rank 12th nationally, and their 6.74 yards per rush rank sixth. Can Clemson’s defensive line -- coming off a bye -- put a halt to that? The game might hinge on this matchup.
Clemson defensive front: What has been most impressive about the Clemson defensive line is the way it has played with four new starters. Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Scott Pagano and Carlos Watkins have picked up where their counterparts left off, allowing nearly identical numbers to last season. Runners are gaining an average of 3 yards per carry; it was 2.9 yards last season. It is averaging 9.3 tackles for loss per game; last season it was 10.1.
ESPN Stats & Information delved a little further. Since Oct. 1, 2014, Clemson has allowed points on 16.5 percent of its opponent drives against Power 5 teams. Over the last two seasons, the Tigers have forced an FBS-high 10.8 negative plays per game during the last two seasons, including 3.3 sacks per game.
Lawson replaced Vic Beasley Jr. and is the player the Irish are sure to have their eyes on. But coaches have been impressed with the way Dodd has played on the other side, considering he only played 92 snaps a year ago. Pagano also has made coaches happy with his performance, too, after stepping into the starting lineup in when D.J. Reader abruptly left in August to take a personal leave. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Reader was playing better than any lineman he had, so losing him could have been a big blow.
The starting group has held up. But this will be its biggest challenge. Notre Dame is the best line Clemson has faced, and presents the extra challenge of trying to get past Stanley, a first-round pick whenever he leaves school. How often Lawson and Stanley get matched up against each other remains to be seen, but the performance there is going to be crucial to the game’s outcome.