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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s struggling pass game may be the ‘secret’ to an upset of Clemson

After losses to Marshall and Stanford, there may be an instinct to undercut Notre Dame’s viability this November, but Irish head coach Marcus Freeman will not grant any credence to any diminishment of his team. Not even with No. 4 Clemson (8-0) rolling into town this weekend.

They may be the mighty Tigers, the same ones of six straight College Football Playoff appearances from 2015 through 2020 and national titles in 2016 and 2018, but Freeman sees these as still also the formidable Irish (5-3), not some upstart hoping to spring an upset.

“It’s not a David vs. Goliath,” Freeman said Monday. “This is a heavyweight fight.

“We’ve got a dang good football team. I’ve always said it. We do exactly what we’re supposed to do, we’re a good enough football team to win every game we play.”

Now the challenge for Notre Dame is to prove that bold claim on the biggest stage (7:30 ET; NBC). If it reverts to the form seen at home thus far this season — not only losing to Marshall and Stanford, but also struggling with Cal and underwhelming against UNLV — this primetime affair could turn lopsided quickly.

“We’ve seen if we don’t execute and we don’t do our job, we’re not going to be victorious.”

If Saturday night will not be David vs. Goliath, then it may be a rendition of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

Coming off the Irish gashing of Syracuse nearly strictly via the ground game, calling Notre Dame’s rushing attack an unstoppable force is not altogether an exaggeration. The Irish took 53 rushes for 249 yards (sack and kneel downs adjusted), a 4.7 yards per carry average. Most notably, Notre Dame threw just five passes in the second half. Once it was ahead, it was content to stay ahead by that present margin.

“There is no secret what their identity is,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said this week. “You can either match that or you can’t. They’ve played eight games, you have a style of play at this point.

“They are a physical group. They have three backs that can beat you. … They have a style of play and you are ready for that or you’re not. It will be a physical game. No secret there.”

The not-so-secret secret may be the Irish passing game and how woeful it is. Unless junior quarterback Drew Pyne and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have been keeping every arrow in their figurative quiver the last month — incomprehensible given included in that stretch was a 16-14 loss to Stanford — there is little for the Tigers to fear from Notre Dame through the air.

Pyne played well against then-No. 16 BYU, completing 22-of-28 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns, but since then he has completed just 48.6 percent of his passes with 6.38 yards per pass attempt. There is leaning on a ground game because it is effective, and then there is leaning on a ground game because the passing attack is ineffective, and the Irish have veered from the former in September to the latter in October.

And neither aspect of Notre Dame’s offense has been explosive, with just 10.7 percent of Irish plays in the last four games qualifying as explosive, their overall explosive rate ranking No. 95 in the country.

The unstoppable force, to stick with the ol’ phrase, has not been a fast-moving one.

“The other thing, at some point, if we’re not running the ball so well, we’re going to throw it more,” Freeman said. “Right now we’re running the ball pretty well. If we don’t run the ball really well, it’s going to force us to take more opportunities in the passing game.”

For every warning Swinney may offer about Notre Dame’s ground attack, the reality is, Saturday night likely will hinge on Pyne’s arm. Clemson’s defensive front will force that issue.

There is the literal description of that defense, including one offered by primary Irish running back Audric Estimé this week on the ND on NBC Podcast.

“We see a lot of big dudes,” Estimé said. “We see a lot of physical guys, so we know it’s going to be a physical game. We see a lot of veterans, we see a lot of experience.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

Then there is the draft evaluation offered by Swinney in the preseason, one not really argued by any draftniks. Swinney suggested his defensive line may send seven linemen into the NFL draft in 2023. Some of them, namely senior end Xavier Thomas and senior defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, have been held back by injury. Those two are, in fact, the most talented members of that line, and their improving statuses suggest Clemson has not been properly evaluated yet this season.

“A guy like Xavier Thomas, for example, he’s just trending up and up and up, where I think he can really cut it loose,” Swinney said Monday.

And lastly, there is the reality that opposing offenses have avoided testing this defensive line as much as they could this season, the inverse of opponents’ eagerness to run against Syracuse’s defense. When factoring in game situation — score, field position, down and distance — opponents have run against the Tigers 10.4 percent less than would usually be expected.

“You have to stop the run or they’re going to kill you,” Swinney said. “The three backs are sledgehammers. All the guys up front, the offensive linemen, they create extra gaps formationally. It’s a real challenge just to line up against these guys, because it’s a different type of football than maybe you see on a weekly basis. It challenges you from a discipline standpoint, a leverage standpoint and alignment because you have to stop the run.”

Swinney is not blowing hot air there. Notre Dame’s offensive line has found its form, albeit against weaker defensive fronts. The matchup in the trenches when the Irish have the ball should be the kind of clash that football purists drool over.

But then Swinney was even blunter. The proof that he was not blowing hot air came in the underlying sentiment of his next sentence.

“The quarterback is not a guy they are going to put in the shotgun, drop back and throw it 50 times,” he said. “That is not who they are.”

That was less a criticism of Pyne and more an acknowledgment of Notre Dame’s broad limitations, what with a receiver rotation lucky to reach five players, a tight end room without three expected downfield threats and a starting quarterback watching from the coaches’ booth. But it fits hand-in-hand with Freeman’s nod to knowing someday the Irish will need to throw the ball.

If ever there was an evening to zig when expected to zag, to box right-handed late into the heavyweight bout before switching to one’s natural southpaw, to throw deep out of the gates to chase an early lead a la scoring on the first snap of the game in 2020, it may be Saturday night for Notre Dame.

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