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And In That Corner ... The No. 4 Clemson Tigers return to Notre Dame with QB uncertainty and a stout DL once again

Ian Book finds Avery Davis to force overtime with 22 seconds left in regulation and Kyren Williams picks up three touchdowns as No. 4 Notre Dame rallies to edge No. 1 Clemson in a 2OT thriller.

Let’s round up and call it exactly two years ago that No. 4 Notre Dame upset No. 1 Clemson in double overtime. That was actually a few days short of two years ago, that instant classic coming on Nov. 7, 2020, but both that tilt and this year’s rendition coming in the first week of November is just one of the parallels.

Just like two years ago, the No. 4 Tigers are facing some quarterback uncertainty, their first chance to sort that out coming against the Irish. Back then, Clemson was favored by five points, a number this week’s spread touched briefly on Monday. And again, this pseudo-ACC contest will come in primetime (7:30 ET; NBC).

Where are the differences these days? Let’s ask Matt Connolly of ClemsonSports, an On3 affiliate.

DF: Appreciate the assist, Matt. And I hope Halloween went well for your trick-or-treater. I felt guilty DMing you at all on that particular holiday, but trusted/assumed you would ignore my message until that more important duty was tended to.

It’s kind of amazing how closely this game falls to the two-year anniversary of Clemson’s last trip to Notre Dame, two days short of that exact date. While that game colors some of this matchup, both these teams have changed drastically since back then, perhaps most notably at quarterback. Let’s get that out of the way. … DJ Uiagalelei will start for the No. 5 Tigers on Saturday, right? And did I spell his last name correctly there without even looking it up?

MC: I was just looking at the game two years ago and how close the dates are, haha. Yes, you did spell it correctly. Well done. And yes, DJ Uiagalelei will start against Notre Dame. People are going to forget about it after the way he played against Syracuse, but he really had played well the first seven games of the season. He was excellent against Florida State on the road in a tough environment and has made a lot of big-time throws this year. He was incredibly clutch at Wake Forest when the defense couldn’t get a stop. He’ll start Saturday, and he deserves to start based on the way he’s played (every week but one) this season.

How long is Uiagalelei’s leash at this point? What type of game scenarios, short of injury, would you envision spur Dabo Swinney to bring in freshman Cade Klubnik, a la two weeks ago late against Syracuse?

While Uiagalelei will start, his leash is definitely shorter than it was two weeks ago. He’s not going to get pulled if he misses an open receiver or two, because to be honest, Cade Klubnik has missed his share in limited playing time as well. I don’t think it’s smart to throw a freshman into his first real road experience at Notre Dame. But if there’s an early interception or two and the turnover woes continue, you’ll see Klubnik get a shot.

Notre Dame fans have been pretty repetitive this week trying to claim Clemson’s offense is lackluster. Let’s pull from a few early-week comments, not to dunk on them, but to give you an idea of the misconceptions I aim to counter here. “This Clemson offense is not particularly scary.” “On offense, Clemson is not that spectacular.”

Personally, I see a veteran, daul-threat quarterback playing with one of the most dynamic running backs in the country and finally finding a rhythm with some of his receivers. Of course, turnovers doomed that momentum against the Orange, but flip that 90-yard scoop-and-score and the Tigers suddenly win that game 34-14. Am I giving Clemson too much credit? Where am I right and where are my readers right?

Yea, I think you nailed it for the most part. Clemson has a junior quarterback with really good running backs and tight ends around him. The receiver play has been inconsistent, and that’s the one area where there are question marks. Clemson doesn’t have anyone who truly scares you the way Mike Williams or Tee Higgins did. At the same time, they do have some solid players at receiver, led by freshman Antonio Williams. The offensive line has also been excellent, although it hasn’t been tested a ton. Overall, I think it’s a very good offense that is led by its running backs, QB run game and tight ends.

On the other side of the ball, there is an obvious question a la the quarterback situation offensively, so help me out quickly: What is the health status along the defensive line? Aside from Xavier Thomas’ Avengers photo on Halloween.

The defensive line is finally healthy after battling injuries for most of the year. I don’t know that Bryan Bresee and Xavier Thomas are all the way back as far as conditioning and football shape as they missed several weeks and were limited once they returned. But the bye week has been good for those guys, and they’re expected to play a big role against Notre Dame. Everyone else on the defense is in good shape. After Clemson couldn’t catch a break with injuries last year, the Tigers have been fortunate this season.

As has been the case in each of their last three matchups, that should be the fun part of this game. Notre Dame’s greatest strength, its offensive line, against Clemson’s, its defensive line. That went the Tigers’ way in 2018 (because that defensive line may have been the best of the decade), the Irish way two years ago, and then Clemson’s way again in that subsequent ACC title game, though Notre Dame was suddenly shorthanded. You’ve studied this week. Where do you see an edge on either side?

I think that the Notre Dame offensive line vs. the Clemson defensive line is a pretty even fight. ND’s line seems to have really gelled over the past several weeks and the offense as a whole is getting more and more confident. This is probably the best offensive line Clemson has faced, although it’s also probably the best defensive line Notre Dame has faced. I expect both units to win their share of plays on Saturday.

The Irish beat Syracuse last week behind one of the most Iowa-esque game plans you can have while still enjoying success. Notre Dame threw the ball five times in the second half. It simply got ahead of the Orange and then strangled the life out of the game. That will be its best path toward an upset this week (and to end the year at USC), but teams do not like running against Clemson, giving up just 87.88 rushing yards per game and 2.98 per carry, good for No. 7 and No. 11 in the country, respectively. In my opinion, the more illustrative fact is that opponents run just 29.5 times per game against the Tigers, No. 10 in the country. Is that all a result of Clemson’s defensive line? To start the year, this was a defense with a new second level. Have those linebackers found their footing as you would have expected?

I think Clemson’s success against the run has been a combination of things. You have a really good defensive line, which we’ve discussed, and an excellent group of linebackers behind them. Clemson’s linebackers are fast and solid tacklers, although maybe a little undersized at 240, 230 and 225 pounds. I will point out that Clemson hasn’t been great against the run in its two most recent games. Florida State ran for 206 against Clemson and averaged 6 yards a carry. Syracuse running back Sean Tucker had only 5 carries but averaged 10.8 yards per attempt.

I assume you see that as the most likely Irish path to an upset, probably combined with a punt block and an Uiagalelei turnover or two. Correct me if I’m wrong. And if not, what would you see as the path to a Tigers blowout?

I agree that Notre Dame’s best path to winning is getting the running game going and then hitting junior tight end Michael Mayer for a few big plays. If they do that they’re not going to need turnovers. Clemson’s best shot for a blowout is stopping the run and making Drew Pyne beat them through the air. If Notre Dame is one-dimensional, I don’t think it has much of a chance.

Clemson is favored by 3.5 or 4, depending on the sportsbook, as of Wednesday’s earliest hours. What are you expecting Saturday night?

I’m expecting a close, low-scoring defensive battle. Notre Dame is physical and I think will have some success running against Clemson. I also think the Notre Dame defense is legit and will make it hard on the Clemson offense. I’m not expecting a shootout like we saw a couple of years ago in South Bend. Ultimately I think Clemson wins, because I don’t think Drew Pyne can do enough in the passing game. But I don’t think it will be easy.

And for that matter, before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to this weekend? I missed you two years ago, the press box that season understandably designed to cut down on any socializing.

I actually did make the trip two years ago. It was an awesome experience and a beautiful night. I’m looking forward to walking around the campus again, seeing Touchdown Jesus and enjoying Notre Dame Stadium with a full stadium. Should be a fun game.

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