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And In That Corner ... Clemson’s wounded defense looms for Notre Dame

DJ Uiagalelei Clemson

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei(5) passes the ball during the second quarter of the game against Boston College, Oct 31, 2020; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan - USA TODAY Sports

Josh Morgan-USA TODAY Sports

We’re all suffering through another waiting this week, so let’s do away with the formalities at the top here and instead jump straight into a preview of Saturday’s matchup of No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) and No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0), in which Matt Connolly of The State newspaper discusses Clemson’s defensive wrinkles, worrisome injuries and, of course, freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei ...

DF: I usually enter these Q&As with some intentional blindspots, things I know are somewhat important, but the beat writer’s answer will be both more informative and more convenient than me doing my own research. That’s not the case here, at least not intentionally, because you and a few of your colleagues so aptly supplement the already-robust national coverage of the Tigers. And there are no big picture queries here, because Dabo Swinney has created the most stable program in the country. (Alabama is No. 2 if only because of Nick Saban’s age, though I suppose that creates some uncertainty at Clemson, as well.)

For example, you spent time last week detailing Brent Venables’ diabolical abilities in avoiding defensive predilections, keeping opposing quarterbacks and coordinators up all hours of the night. I have two follow-up questions to that story. First, the pertinent: Has Venables dialed back in those regards in any perceivable way this season or even just recent weeks without several defensive starters? I think my current list is close to accurate; The Tigers will be without linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones, tackle Tyler Davis, end Justin Foster and, for the first half, end Xavier Thomas. That’s less than ideal.

MC: Clemson was still holding out hope that Jones and Davis would be able to play, but Dabo Swinney ruled them out Wednesday night. So yes, Skalski, Jones, Davis and Foster will all be out Saturday, and Thomas will miss the first half. Foster hasn’t played all year, so Clemson is used to playing without him. And Thomas missed the first three games and has been limited since returning, so Clemson is used to playing without him as well.

As far as dialing back his defenses, Venables hasn’t done that at all. If anything, he has gotten even more creative. Clemson opened last week’s game in a 4-2-5 with Jones out. I expect to see Clemson mainly in a 4-3 against Notre Dame to try to slow down the rushing attack, but there will still be plenty of blitzes. It would not be a surprise at all to see several different formations with 3 and 4 down linemen.

Before my second follow-up question, how inaccurate is my list? Which of those are the greatest losses that Notre Dame might be able to exploit?

No Tyler Davis and no James Skalski is a huge loss for Clemson. That means Clemson’s best linebacker and best defensive tackle will be out. Both players are very good at stopping the run and clogging up the middle, necessities against this Irish offense.

My other question about that Venables story from last week: I am sure there was some bit you could not get into the story that you still thought was worthwhile. The cutting room floor is never clean after that much reporting. Whether or not it applies to this weekend, what one thing didn’t hit the print that you still have logged in your head?

I touched on it a little bit in the story but I think just the fact that it’s the combination of Venables and the players Clemson gets that makes its defense so good. Here’s a quote from former Georgia and Miami coach Mark Richt:

“Quite frankly there’s a very big margin between Clemson and everybody else in our league. They’re just physically superior top-to-bottom when you go to the top 22. They can withstand injuries. They can withstand suspensions. They can withstand issues whereas other teams don’t have enough depth.

“Alabama is probably playing against more teams that are more like them than Clemson is in our league. So that doesn’t hurt. They’re pretty good against the best teams, but LSU had their way with them like they did with everybody. So everybody’s beatable.”

On blitzing and bringing people like Isaiah Simmons from all over as Clemson did last year, Richt said sometimes Venables brings six-plus rushers to go up against five offensive linemen:

“You end up with your sixth guy (blitzing) is a guy like Simmons and you’ve got your running back trying to block the guy. Even the best running backs, the only thing you can hope is that they get run over slowly.”

Boston College and Phil Jurkovec cut through Venables’ defense in the first half last week. My notes watching the game were simple: “The real story not O, but Clemson’s D.” What were the Eagles able to do that led to 21 first-half points (28 coming via a 97-yard fumble return)? What did the Tigers do to shut that down after halftime?

Early on BC used tempo, took some shots and connected. As the game went along, I thought Boston College made a mistake by slowing down the tempo, running the ball more and shortening the game. It’s hard to beat Clemson by trying to run out the clock. I think Clemson’s defensive backs also did a better job of finding the ball in the air in the second half and making plays on the ball. Jurkovec also missed some throws.

Opponents are not having much success running against Clemson, 2.74 yards per carry, despite many people thinking this defensive front pales in comparison to recent years. Notre Dame has leaned on the run this season, although not necessarily against the staunchest competition. It is hard to ask, “How good/bad is this Tigers line?” while removing the 2018 generational version from the comparison points, but if that’s possible, is there a weakness up front for the Irish to target?

I don’t know that there’s necessarily one weakness to target. I just think when you have the injuries Clemson does, it’s going to be tough for the Tigers against Notre Dame’s offensive line. Clemson’s defensive line will rely on guys like Justin Mascoll, Bryan Bresee, K.J. Henry, Jordan Williams, Nyles Pinckney and Myles Murphy. They’re all talented players and three are former five-star recruits, but Davis can take over a game, and Skalski is a guy Swinney said he had to take out of practice at times this spring because it wasn’t fair to the offense — he was making every tackle.

I focus on Clemson’s defense. I think it is what has elevated this program the last five years. Defensive fronts like the Tigers’ standard don’t take games off, lessening the chances of an inexplicable upset. But the highlights go to the offense.

Obviously this week that starts with freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. Aside from experience, what are the biggest differences between him and Trevor Lawrence?

I think experience is far and away the biggest difference. Uiagalelei has a huge arm and can make every throw, and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Saturday the game plan for Boston College didn’t change at all once Lawrence was ruled out. Swinney made headlines this spring when he said Uiagalelei makes Lawrence “look kind of normal at times” with his arm strength. That’s a heck of a statement. Of course experience is no small factor. When you have a guy who has played in four College Football Playoff games and a guy who is making his first career road start, that’s a big difference.

The other difference would be size. Uiagalelei is massive at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. He’s tough to bring down in the pocket and can get tough yards in short-yardage situations.

Heading into last week, Uiagalelei was nursing an injury. It seemed to limit his exposure to hits early against Boston College, but then he broke that 30-yard touchdown run to get within one possession, and it was clear he is still plenty mobile. How severe is that injury? Does it limit Uiagalelei?

It’s actually a throwing shoulder injury Uiagalelei has been dealing with. Clemson definitely does not want him taking too many shots, but as you mentioned they ran him a little bit against BC. I think it’s a situation where they want to protect him some but also understand he makes a big difference in the running game when he can keep on some zone reads. My guess is his carries are limited, and when he does run he’ll do his best to protect his shoulder.

Have you, personally, recovered from the shock of Lawrence’s positive coronavirus test? I suspect last Thursday was a day in your professional life you will remember for a good while.

Last Thursday was wild, for sure. I was coming back from picking up some pizza, checked my phone and had several messages from friends asking if the news about Trevor was true. I made some phone calls and started working on a story pretty much immediately. I guess that’s just the world we live in during COVID times. You never really know when major news is going to break.

Needed follow-up: What kind of pizza?

It was Pizza Inn, which I’m not sure y’all have there. Sausage/pepperoni and chocolate chip pizza.

Is ... that ... on one pizza? Or is the chocolate chip a dessert pizza, almost a big cookie? You have my attention.

Two different. Chocolate chip pizza is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

And then there is Travis Etienne. If he gets rolling, Notre Dame does not stand a chance, and he has shown a penchant for taking over in Lawrence’s stead when necessary. If granting that as a fact, then the best chance for the Irish to contain Etienne will be devoting either linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and/or safety Kyle Hamilton to the cause. Let’s say that works, as those two might actually be physically capable of the task. What will Clemson’s next offensive ploy be? If Etienne somehow accounts for only 120 total yards and one score, where do the Tigers turn for four more touchdowns?

Let’s start with Etienne. If I’m Notre Dame, I’m as concerned with him catching the ball out of the backfield as I am with him getting carries. Etienne is averaging 15 yards per catch and is a nightmare to bring down in the open field. Defenses have done a nice job of bottling him up and closing down running lanes this year, but he is second on Clemson’s team in receptions and receiving yards.

As far as other playmakers to watch — it starts with Amari Rodgers. The senior lines up mostly in the slot but is also Clemson’s best deep threat. He has 40 catches for 586 yards and six touchdowns this season. Rodgers is tied for fourth in the ACC in catches, second in yards and is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions. Cornell Powell, Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata are other receivers to watch out for, while Braden Galloway is a receiving threat at tight end. Ngata and Ladson have big-play potential, but Ngata has been limited by injuries all year and Ladson has struggled with drops.

I suggest five total touchdowns because if this game remains in the 20s, I think Notre Dame has a chance. Admittedly, these last two questions have now included three massive “if”s, but that is what happens when facing a team with 36 regular-season wins in a row. IFs becoming THENs is what creates an upset. Have I missed any other “if” propositions you think may prove distinctly relevant?

I don’t really have any other “if” propositions but one other thing I think is fascinating is the way the two teams have viewed the game. Notre Dame has been pretty open this season about how it is pointing to the Clemson game as a huge one. The Tigers have said they’re treating it just like any other game. We’ll see how that plays out Saturday.

What do you expect Saturday night (7:30 ET; NBC)? Be as broad or as specific as you see fit.

I think it’s going to be a great game, and I’m really excited to see how it plays out. My guess is Notre Dame makes Clemson one-dimensional and a lot is on the shoulders of Uiagalelei. Offensively for Notre Dame, I expect them to be able to establish the run with so many Clemson injuries. At this point I’m leaning Notre Dame.

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