SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly called Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson a “game-wrecker.” Linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt said Watson is the best dual-threat quarterback he’ll have faced.
There’s an acute knowledge inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex that Watson is Clemson’s X-factor, the guy who could change a game even if his teammates on offense, defense and special teams struggle to succeed against Notre Dame Saturday night at Death Valley.
Watson earned a five-star rating by Rivals and was ranked as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2014’s recruiting class (DeShone Kizer was a four-star recruit and the No. 9 dual-threat quarterback that year). He completed 68 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions in eight games as a true freshman, and he beat South Carolina (14/19, 269 yards, 4 total TDs) while playing on a torn ACL.
In his first three games in 2015, Watson completed 74.4 percent of his passes for 641 yards, but he already has more interceptions (three) than he did last year against seven touchdowns. He was unimpressive in a narrow three-point win at Louisville Sept. 17, going 21/30 for 199 yards with two touchdowns and two picks.
But Notre Dame would be foolish to expect Watson to struggle in the same manner he did against Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals. With 16 days to rest up and prepare for Notre Dame, Watson could be teed up to make a massive impact Saturday night at Death Valley.
“He’s a very, very talented quarterback,” Schmidt said. “He can do kind of everything within the offense. He operates through the offense exceptionally well. He has a tremendous amount of poise at the line of scrimmage. You know, he doesn't really seem to get rattled, makes all the throws, runs exceptionally well.”
So if Watson is Clemson’s most important player, who’s Notre Dame’s for this pivotal clash with massive playoff implications?
Look no further than No. 91 on the defensive line.
Senior defensive tackle and two-time captain Sheldon Day leads Notre Dame with two sacks and nine quarterback hurries, and is second on the team with four tackles for a loss. Combine his success getting into the backfield this year with a shaky Tigers offensive line, and Day could similarly be a “game-wrecker” for Notre Dame on Saturday.
“He comes off the ball, that’s what I’ve noticed this year that I haven’t in the past — not that he hasn’t in the past, but it hasn’t been so noticeable,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “His sacks and TFLs, he comes off the ball and he’s very explosive.”
Clemson is without starting center Ryan Norton (knee) and is breaking in first-year starters at left tackle (freshman Mitch Hyatt) and right guard (redshirt sophomore Tyrone Crowder, who started one game last year). Saturday evening should be a good opportunity for Day to set up camp in the backfield and disrupt the Tigers’ offense by pressuring Watson.
The key for Notre Dame’s defensive ends if there is pressure on the quarterback is to stick to their assignments and not get aggressive in trying to drop Watson, too. Otherwise, Watson’s dual-threat ability could shine through and render Day’s pass rushes moot.
Watson likely will complete a high percentage of his passes against Notre Dame, but if Day and the Irish pass rush are able to drop him a few times or force a couple of hurried throws, it could neutralize that game-wrecking ability. And it could be the reason why Notre Dame emerges from Death Valley unscathed.