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Clemson and Notre Dame breakdown edges and keys to victory

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The sports team covering the Cotton Bowl talks about the matchup between Clemson and Notre Dame.
Ken Ruinard, Anderson Independent Mail

The College Football Playoff gets started with two semifinal matchups on Dec. 29. The winners of both games will advance to the national championship game in Santa Clara, California, on Jan. 7. 

The first game will take place Saturday afternoon in the Cotton Bowl where No. 2 Clemson faces off with No. 3 Notre Dame. It’s the fourth consecutive playoff appearance for the Tigers and the first for the Irish.

A look at which team has the edge in each aspect of the game and four keys to victory for both teams when they take the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

PASSING OFFENSE

Both teams changed quarterbacks in September, with Clemson tapping true freshman Trevor Lawrence and Notre Dame going with junior Ian Book. Each has more than justified the move. Book has been accurate and sneakily athletic while providing a dose of toughness to the Notre Dame offense. But Lawrence has put together one of the best seasons by a rookie starter in recent NCAA history, particularly when considering the stakes at play. There may not be a better prospect at the position in the country. EDGE: Clemson

RUNNING GAME

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (941 yards) has been the primary weapon in the running game after joining the lineup in late September. The Irish have scored at least 38 points in each of the three games where Williams earned 20 or more carries. His counterpart at Clemson, sophomore Travis Etienne (1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns), played his way into the Heisman Trophy race as one of college football’s most intriguing skill players. What separates the Tigers’ ground game is the sense of explosiveness Etienne brings to every touch. EDGE: Clemson

DEFENSE

These are two of the top units in the country: Clemson leads the country in yards allowed per play and Notre Dame ranks eighth. Both defenses are best along the interior, which makes the fact that Clemson tackle Dexter Lawrence could miss the Cotton Bowl due to a failed drug test a major concern. Even without Lawrence, however, the Tigers’ defensive front is the best in the country. The Irish could have an edge at cornerback, where Julian Love has played at an All-America level, but the tale of the tape favors the Tigers. EDGE: Clemson

SPECIAL TEAMS

If the Cotton Bowl comes down to defense — and that seems likely — Clemson’s strong coverage teams will be a major asset in dictating field position. There may not be a huge gap separating each team’s return groups, but the Irish are definitely in better shape at kicker: Justin Yoon is a reliable option on most field goals. Let’s call it a draw. EDGE: Even

PREDICTION

Clemson can run with up-tempo teams and win in the trenches, which explains why the Tigers are once again a major threat to win the national championship. Notre Dame’s avenue to victory is a little less clear, and demands the Irish force Lawrence into mistakes and develop a productive running game to loosen up the Clemson defense. That’s possible but not necessarily probable given the way the Tigers have rolled since the start of October. Clemson 34, Notre Dame 17

FOUR KEYS TO A CLEMSON WIN

1. Big plays on the ground

Feeding Etienne is a prerequisite, obviously, and another 100-yard game from the sophomore would be a clear marker of a Clemson win. But where Clemson can separate itself from Notre Dame is in the big-play potential Etienne provides to the offense. The Tigers rank fourth nationally in running plays of 60 or more yards. It’s an idea that should worry Notre Dame, which could bottle up Etienne for a quarter before the Tigers’ running game reels off a long touchdown scamper and changes the complexion of the game.

2. Keep winning on third down

Clemson is seventh in the country in third-down defense, allowing just 28.2 percent of teams to convert and gain a first down. That’s largely because of a ferocious pass rush bolstered by a defensive overflowing with NFL potential. This same line could stand tall against the run to set the Irish into intimidating must-pass situations, feeding into the defense’s ability to get pressure on the quarterback with four rushers. A Clemson defense that can dedicate itself to pressuring the passer is dangerous.

3. Spread it around

Clemson’s passing game has a top target in sophomore Tee Higgins (52 receptions for 802 yards), who looks like the program’s next NFL receiver. But the Tigers are at their best through the air when spreading the ball between Higgins, freshman Justyn Ross (34 for 699), Amari Rodgers (47 for 519) and Hunter Renfrow (43 for 472). To have four receivers capable of converting on third down and in the red zone is an obvious issue for Notre Dame, which has a very solid secondary but will need to rely on depth to handle what has developed into an elite receiver corps.

4. No turnovers

Well, of course. But Clemson’s blueprint for victory isn’t too complicated: avoid mistakes. The Tigers have lost just twice in the past six seasons when winning the turnover battle, to Syracuse in 2017 and Florida State in 2014. What’s been remarkable about Lawrence is how he’s largely avoided interceptions, with just four in 326 attempts. Clemson has lost eight fumbles but remains plus-four on the year in overall turnover margin. An edge in this category against Notre Dame would be a huge asset in Clemson’s favor.

FOUR KEYS TO A NOTRE DAME WIN

1. Four yards on first down

The trickle-down effect of a solid gain on the opening drive of every series is seen most in how it would place Ian Book in more manageable conversions on third down. Avoiding a long down-and-distance would negate one of Clemson’s strongest suits, its devastatingly effective pass rush. Getting four or more yards in any way — whether with an easily completion through the air or on the ground — would do wonders for the Irish offense. Failing to do so would be dangerous for Notre Dame’s chances.

2. Lean on Justin Yoon

Notre Dame’s edge at kicker could be a factor. Yoon made 16 of his 20 attempts overall and six of his eight tries from 40-plus yards. In a game that may very well be decided by a single possession, the Irish shouldn’t be afraid to take points where they can get them — especially in the early going in an attempt to take an early lead and rob Clemson of any momentum. Yoon has proven to be ready for this sort of stage and a reliable option on kicks inside of 50 yards.

3. Look for Chris Finke

Finke (47 catches for 547 yards) gets overlooked behind Notre Dame’s top receiving pair of Miles Boykin (54 for 803) and Chase Claypool (48 for 631). But that could work to the offense’s benefit. While Clemson would devote resources to handle Boykin and Claypool, two bigger targets, Finke could find seams and gaps in the Tigers’ secondary to sustain potential scoring drives. He had a great close to the regular season, with at least four receptions in each of Notre Dame’s last four games and a season-high seven grabs in the finale against Southern California.

4. Slow things down

Not that Clemson isn’t comfortable in a slower, defense-centered sort of game. Still, Notre Dame can’t afford to get into a shootout with a team more capable of landing the sort of big plays that can tilt the balance of a high-scoring matchup. On the other hand, the Irish feel at home in games that are played more traditionally, with the run setting up the pass, extended drives and battles for field position. The Irish must set the tempo of the game in the first quarter and keep Clemson from dictating the terms.

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