Cotton Bowl preview: Clemson looking to roll over Notre Dame
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Cotton Bowl
Who:
No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson Tigers (13-0, 9-0 ACC)
When: Saturday, Dec. 29, 4 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
TV: ESPN
Odds: Clemson -12.5
Over/Under: 56.5

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats Notre Dame Clemson
Points Per Game 33.8 (34) 45.4 (5)
Points Allowed/Game 17.3 (9) 13.7 (T-2)
Rush Yards/Game 190.5 (49) 259.8 (10)
Pass Yards/Game 265.6 (31) 270.1 (29)
Total Yards/Game 456.1 (28) 529.8 (5)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 133.5 (33) 93.0 (3)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 198.0 (36) 183.8 (18)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 331.5 (21) 276.8 (4)
Third-Down Offense 44.3% (T-27) 43.8% (T-31)
Third-Down Defense 37.8% (57) 28.2% (7)
Red-Zone Offense 86.3% (47) 90.9% (11)
Red-Zone Defense 78.8% (30) 74.2% (11)
Team Sacks/Game 2.58 (T-37) 3.46 (3)
Turnover Differential +5 (T-36) +4 (T-41)

(Division I rank in parentheses)

Season review

Notre Dame

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Seasons don’t get much more Notre Dame-y than this. The Irish went undefeated after squeaking by a couple of opponents as rival fan bases complained about their schedule.

Not all 12-0 seasons are created equal. Does it feel like the Irish are on the same level as Alabama and Clemson? No. Brian Kelly’s side was pushed during wins over Michigan, Vanderbilt, Pitt, and USC. But this team is still really good. Kelly has crafted a well-balanced squad, with Nore Dame ranking fourth in defensive S&P+ and 26th in offensive S&P+.

The decision to switch quarterbacks, from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book, was a bold one. But the move helped push the Irish’s offense from a middling group to a devastating one.

Book, who moves well, has been steadier in the pocket than Wimbush. He spreads the ball around and gives the Irish’s offense a more egalitarian feel. He activates his weapons, pushing the ball into space and letting his receivers do damage after the catch.

Book has had to overcome a stagnant run game, with Notre Dame sticking to its roots as a smashmouth-spread offense. Whereas other such offenses - Penn State and Houston come to mind - have transitioned to isolation running, the Irish continue to rely on pulling and moving linemen, running intricate gap-scheme designs.

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame’s defense is the star of the show. Coordinator Clark Lea has built a system similar to the defense Michigan's Don Brown uses. There's a variety of post-snap movement, bluffs, and trap coverages, and a glut of defensive alignments. Lea tries plenty of goofy zones, too.

If the Irish go deep in the playoff, their formula will be simple: Play stout defense and hope for some Book magic.

Clemson

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Clemson cruised through the 2018 season, finishing second in S&P+, which includes fielding the seventh-ranked offense and top defense.

An early season bout against Texas A&M was a close affair, and the Tigers had their annual dud against Syracuse. But, for the most part, Dabo Swinney was able to put his Death Star into cruise control.

The Tigers beat eleven opponents by twenty-plus points, and they crushed Pitt 42-10 in the ACC title game. No team in the conference can get close to matching Clemson's athletes on both sides of the ball.

Swinney made the bold call early in the year to replace starting quarterback Kelly Bryant with true freshman sensation Trevor Lawrence. It would have been easy to ride out the Bryant experience until the team lost. But Swinney showed great foresight knowing what was on the horizon. Clemson wasn’t competing for the ACC title. No, the team was preparing for the playoff.

By sticking with Lawrence early, Clemson was able to iron out any kinks.

The offense is different under Lawrence. He’s a terrific athlete and an excellent thrower. He knows to get the ball in the hands of his quick pass-catchers and let them outrun defenders. If you can out-leverage the defense or win through play design, the game becomes a sprinting contest.

Swinney’s staff has done a good job of bringing Lawrence along slowly. Clemson uses a lot of mirrored concepts, running the same two-man route combination on both sides of the field to make reads easier. Thanks to a pre-snap read, the team's play-action package is based on reading a single defender.

When Lawrence is on the sideline, he gets to watch Clemson’s dominant defense. You know all about the team's defensive line by now, but the linebacker level is solid and the defensive backfield has as much talent as ever.

Every game, every possession, the Tigers' defense makes you earn it. They’ve conceded just 178 points all season, and only five opponents scored more than 10 points. South Carolina put up 35 and Swinney and co. faced a state-wide inquest.

No team enters the playoff in better shape. The Tigers are healthy, dominant along the defensive line, and they have a young quarterback who’s growing every week.

Players to watch

Notre Dame DL Jerry Tillery

Tillery is the leader of the Irish’s impressive front. Mostly lining up inside, he’s posted 10.5 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, and 12.5 run stops this season - great numbers for an interior pass-rusher.

He’s smart, stout, and ferocious. His natural leverage allows him to consistently get under the pads of opposing linemen. Once he’s engaged, it’s game over: Tillery’s violent hands, length, and motor win out:

Keep an eye on his battle with Clemson right guard John Simpson, who isn’t the most powerful, but he's a master technician. Few guards in the country do a better job with their positional leverage (body placement relative to the opponent's positioning) and hands. He renders elite athletes utterly helpless.

If Clemson is happy to stick Simpson on Tillery without sending help, it will be a long, long evening for the Irish defense.

Notre Dame TE Alize Mack

Mack, a redshirt junior, has overcome suspensions and off-the-field concerns to put up his best season yet. His athleticism can create a one-on-one mismatch, as Clemson’s linebackers have struggled this season when isolated in space against tight ends who are really receivers hiding in a taller, slower body.

Clemson WR Tee Higgins

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During the Dabo era, Clemson has often isolated one of its receivers to the short side of the field in an X-ISO formation. DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams have all filled the role. Now it’s Tee Higgins’ turn.

Isolating the “X” receiver to one side helps to reveal coverages. If the star receiver is doubled, the quarterback knows he has one-on-one matchups on the opposite side of the field.

In that setup, there are a limited number of coverages a defense can run. And there are fewer choices for a young quarterback to make, as typically he'll only have to read one side of the field or a single defender.

Higgins has been pretty dominant in 2018, catching 50 passes and scoring 10 touchdowns. He's Trevor Lawrence’s go-to target on third down, coverages be damned.

Clemson DL Clelin Ferrell

Incredibly, defensive end Clelin Ferrell has recorded 17.5 tackles for a loss, 19 run stuffs, and 10.5 sacks so far this season.

Ferrell is a Julius Peppers clone. He’s a long, twitchy, dynamic athlete blessed with the wingspan of a pterodactyl and the hops traditionally reserved for an NBA All-Star game.

What’s so daunting about facing Ferrell is that he can win in a number of ways. He wins inside or outside. He can run over or around the big bodies intending to block him, and he’s able to slam one of his long arms into a blocker's pads before they get close.

And it’s not like the opposition can assign extra blockers to help out. Chipping running backs or double-teams are typically assigned to Dexter Lawrence or Christian Wilkins inside. As a result, Ferrell sees a bunch of one-on-one blocks, and he feasts on whichever poor sap is tasked with getting in his way.

Biggest mismatch

Clemson's defensive line vs. Notre Dame's offensive line

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Nobody has been able to slow down Clemson’s dominant D-line. Only two defenses in the country have pressured opposing quarterbacks on 40-plus percent of the team's snaps: Alabama and Clemson.

The Tigers live behind the line of scrimmage. They finished 16th in sack rate this season, third in stuff rate, and pressured quarterbacks on 45 percent of their snaps.

No front has done a better job of shutting down explosive runs, the lifeblood of spread-to-run programs like Notre Dame.

The Irish’s rushing offense has been boom-or-bust all season. They’re consistently looking to hit home runs with their gap-scheme elements (linemen pulling or moving). That inevitably leads to a bunch of strikeouts, particularly against fronts with agile interior defenders.

Notre Dame’s offense ranks 118th in stuff rate this season, the worst mark during Brian Kelly’s tenure.

Clemson’s D-line must be licking its chops. No other team, not even Alabama, sports multiple potential first-round picks along its down line.

Notre Dame's keys to victory

Second-level pressures: Lawrence has struggled this season against second-level pressures from a linebacker or rotating safety:

There are more experienced quarterbacks who never figure out how to handle pressure coming from unorthodox places.

Defensive coaches who are daring enough crowd the line of scrimmage with a morass of bodies. Who is coming, and from where? That’s the first problem. Then a young pup like Lawrence has to switch his protection.

And what if one defender, or both, blitzed the first time but bluffed the second? What do you do the third time?

Like most, Lawrence starts to second guess himself. Information can overload even the best quarterbacks. He starts to pull the ball and take an extra second, worried that he'll fall into the trap of a zone pressure.

He doesn’t trust what he sees and everything becomes hurried and forced. As a result, passes fall wayward:

His hesitancy is more pronounced in the second half when he’s seen more looks. Lea will have a bevy of bluffs, disguises, and blitzes lined up for him to solve.

Keep Ian Book clean: If Book isn’t kept clean, Notre Dame has no shot. He doesn't struggle under pressure. But if Book is facing intense fire, that means Clemson’s defensive line has taken over. There’s only so much improvisational magic Book can pull off before Clemson starts to reign him in or force a mistake.

It will be interesting to find out what Notre Dame's plan is to counter Clemson’s front. Will the Irish play straight up? Move the launching point? Roll the pocket? Throw in some trickery? Bank on a run game that’s been inconsistent this year? There are a bunch of options, but no good ones.

Clemson's keys to victory

The secondary: Clemson looks set, except in its secondary. In recent weeks, the group has been playing as well as any around. But it’s hard to not look back at the Clemson secondary's early-season struggles and see a glimmer of hope for Notre Dame.

This group has grown and evolved throughout the campaign. Brent Venables never adapted, staunchly sticking with the team’s Cover 3 or Cover 1 robber base package.

Quarterback run game: Because he looks like Sunshine from Remember the Titans, Lawrence isn’t viewed as a legitimate, dual-threat quarterback.

But he is, and his legs will be vital to Clemson’s national title bid. The Tigers have held back part of their quarterback package throughout the year because they haven't needed it, and now they might against the Irish's front.

Clemson’s rushing offense has been inconsistent. Adding Lawrence on option elements will help open things up, and it will have a significant effect on the passing game, too.

Prediction

Clemson 34, Notre Dame 14

__________

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Cotton Bowl preview: Clemson looking to roll over Notre Dame
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