October 02, 2015

Rakes Report #23: Staying alive in Death Valley (The Clemson Preview)

Good morning, everybody, and happy Friday. Tacking this on before I head to the airport for a flight that's currently as of this moment schedule to make it to Charlotte. If you're traveling for the game this weekend good luck and stay safe. And, of course, a big thank you for @NDMSPaint for the art. This is one of his best and you're going to want to click through for the full experience.

When cruising the internet earlier this week, I came across some interesting commentary from Clemson fans. It was an odd inferiority complex for a team that’s posted double-digit win totals the last few years mixed with the usual contempt for Notre Dame. I thought it was maybe just the random corners of the internet I had stumbled into so I chose not to write about it in Wednesday’s email. Turns out this prevailing sentiment of “no respect” shared by the fans extends to the players as well:

“Everybody thinks Notre Dame’s unstoppable,” Kearse added. “They honestly should have lost to Virginia. So they think Notre Dame’s unstoppable, so we going to come out here and show them that we can stop them.”

Who thinks Notre Dame is unstoppable?! Some commentators are picking the Irish in a close one, sure, but many, many more are not. I was making a few comments about how no one had really disrespected the Tigers on Twitter and a couple Syracuse bloggers randomly jumped in to say “Oh, you have no idea.” Was I not crazy? Was it really just a Clemson thing? They provided some evidence. This is from a recap of the Orange’s October 2013 game with Tigers, and it sounds just a little familiar:

Look, fanbases are fanbases. For the most part, they're all the same. 90% of the fans are normal, rational people. The other 10% is a mixture of lunatics, naysayers and a-holes. There were a lot of cool Clemson fans who stopped by during and after the game. But...there was also this really weird undercurrent in a lot of Clemson fan rhetoric. A LOT of talk about "class" and Syracuse's lack thereof. A lot of butthurtedness about "taunts" and "smack" by Syracuse during the week. And a lot of pearl clutching over Scott Shafer's outburst during the game.

From what I can tell, before the game there was Jerome Smith's innocuous tweet about preferring his quarterback (which you would hope ANY player would say about his quarterback) and some other made-up stuff in an attempt to feed into what seems to be a "We Need To Feel Disrespected" state. How else do you explain why they were so bothered by Smith's perceived slight of Tajh Boyd? And then when Clemson beat us, it was #karma. Or something.

Is this just how Dabo Swinney motivates his team? By blowing random tweets of the opponents out of proportion and not allowing his team to respond via social media? Clemson won that Syracuse game 49-14, but I don’t think this strategy necessarily guarantees success considering the Tigers lost five straight to troll god Steve Spurrier, who basically exists to give you bulletin board quotes.
I would place this all in the same “This will have no real bearing on the game” file as Paul Johnson Presents The Count of Monte Cristo. These are two of the best teams in the country playing for the first time in decades, so there is no need for extra motivation. Clemson is going to be in front of a rabid home crowd, in what has been called an SEC-like atmosphere this week. Notre Dame has generally played very well in these big primetime road games, with wins (’10 USC, ’12 Sparty, OU and USC), tough losses (’11 Michigan, ’13 Stanford) and a screw job (’14 FSU). Both teams are going to show up regardless of who tweeted what.

The issue is it’s almost impossible to tell exactly what kind of team Clemson has. They have recruited very well over the last few years, but lost a ton from last season, including two first-round linebackers in this spring’s draft. Their only legitimate competition was a Thursday night at Louisville, an ugly 20-17 affair Clemson was on the verge of blowing open a few times before they ended up in a dogfight that required a late Cardinals field goal miss to avoid overtime. I’d be careful not to say “Clemson didn’t look great against Louisville, so they mustn’t be that good,” because no one game truly represents a team, especially this early in the season.

I think the biggest x-factor in this game is Deshaun Watson. Watson is a five-star sophomore who flashed a ton of potential in 2014 (14 touchdowns, two pick, 68% completion rate and a 10.7 yards per attempt average) and spent this offseason having glowing profile after glowing profile written about him. He missed a few easy throws against Louisville and turned it over twice, but also flashed the gun on some beautiful completions. If Watson plays at the level he’s been at so far this season, the Irish should be able to contain him. If he cranks it up to the preseason Heisman-contender heights everyone thinks he’s capable of, things could be rough.
The burden of carrying the Clemson offense has been shared by sophomore tailback Wayne Gallman, who was a composite four-star that fell just outside the top 300. He ran hard and often against the Cardinals (139 yards on 25 carries), but faces the same problem that caused Watson some trouble: the Tigers offensive line. Watson was under pressure the whole night at Papa John’s Stadium as Clemson attempts to reconstruct a line that was hurt by graduation and injuries. They’re rolling with a true freshman at left tackle, but considering Mitch Hyatt was a consensus five-star, things could probably be worse.

The offense is also trying to deal with the losses of offensive coordinator Chad Morris (now the head coach at SMU) and lead receiver Mike Williams (fractured neck). Sophomore Artavis Scott will be the man to watch, as the top 100 recruit ended last year on a tear (15 catches, 299 yards, 3 scores) and already has 20 catches in 2015. Five-star freshman and all-name team captain Ray-Ray McCloud will also be involved. The Tigers are comfortable going hurry-up and they’re going to attack the full width of the fields with screens to their various speedsters. I am very wary of Watson getting into a rhythm and the VanGorder scheme reverting to old habits of ineffectiveness against no-huddle.

The biggest question mark for the Irish all season has been their secondary. In the two biggest games of the season, they shut down Texas and Georgia Tech, but neither squad is known for their passing ability. They struggled against Virginia and UMass, but that might have been as much about focus* as it was ability (plus there was the whole Cavalier jump ball spree). They should get some help from the front seven – it’s likely Jaylon Smith (fun new profile from Adam Kramer here) will personally negate Watson’s presence in the running game – but this is a chance for the Notre Dame defensive backs to elevate the whole team to another level as they barrel toward the second half of the season.

* Isaac Rochell does not play defensive back, but his quote from this week could perhaps apply to that entire side of the ball: "I think we’ve had a really good week of practice. I’m not saying we didn’t have a good week of practice for Virginia, but I don’t think we were taking it as seriously as we should have been. This week we’ve really been preparing the way we need to just a little bit more. I think that’s the biggest thing."

For the Notre Dame offense, this is going to be another level of opponent. There are all-conference level performers across the Tigers defense, and coordinator Brent Venables is more than capable at the controls, earning the number one defensive ranking in 2014. Safety Jarvon Kearse (a freakish 6’5”), corner Mackensie Alexander, linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive end Shaq Lawson are all potential difference makers, and Venables will need monster efforts from his stars to make up for the fact he lost six of the top eight tackles from last year’s unit.

There is talent all over this depth chart, but there’s also a lot of youth and inexperience. The Tigers will be flying all over the field in the blitzes Venables loves to call, which presents an opportunity for Kelly and the Mikes Sanford and Denbrock. The Irish are very good at wide receiver screens and despite not using them at all this season, screens to the running backs are always in play. If the Tigers are not careful when they sellout, I imagine it would feel extraordinarily disrespectful to be a Clemson defensive back getting pancaked by Quenton Nelson twenty yards down field. Unfortunately, blocking tight end Tyler Luatua will miss this game as his concussion lingers, but Kelly said he'll likely be good to go for Navy next weekend. Corey Robinson is a full go after missing UMass.

The offensive line has been extraordinary since the kickoff of the Music City Bowl, but this might be their stiffest test. It’s unknown how DeShone Kizer (who’s still making some understandable freshman mistakes) will respond when his first road involves the decibel level of a jet engine (he said he's cool with the rain), so the possibility exists this game turns on the Irish’s ability to run against eight-man boxes. If Clemson sells out against the run and Kizer can’t make them pay over the top, it could be a long night. Louisville ran for all of 19 yards and gave up five sacks, but their offensive line spent most of that game doing their best tribute to 2007 Notre Dame. If the moment isn’t too big for Kizer, I think the Irish will be able to move the ball.

Three other factors:

1) Clemson isn’t great at special teams. They gave up a kickoff return to Louisville in the fourth quarter and have an unsettled place kicking game, with a redshirt freshman (who’s 4 for 5 on kicks so far this season) potentially sharing time with returning starter Ammon Lakip, whose three-game suspension for cocaine possession and a DUI has come to an end. The Tigers also currently rank 117th in punting average (Notre Dame is 11th, thanks to Tyler Newsome and strong work in coverage), so the Irish could potentially make up some ground on field position if this turns into more of a slugfest.

2) Which it might if the effects of Hurricane Joaquin and some other very wet weather systems are felt during the game. As I write this on Thursday, the current forecast is about a foot of rain over three days, which is just lovely. Weather is traditionally said to favor the underdog, but I don’t know what that means in a pick ‘em. Could it dampen the crowd noise? Maybe. It might also make passing impossible, which might favor the Irish if their defensive line can hold up. Memorial Stadium has a grass field, which means this could potentially turn into a damn Mud Bowl. Also really curious to see if the Tigers still run down their hill if said hill is more like a slalom course by kickoff.
3) Clemson hasn’t played since September 17, so they’ve had two and a half weeks to prepare. Is that too long of a layoff? Will Swinney overthink things? Will the fact their first three opponents have all been varying levels of not good leave them unprepared for the size and skill of the Irish, or will they be rested, ready and waiting? This is a gap as long as some bowl teams wait after the end of the season, so it’s really impossible to say if that time off will be a help or hindrance.

I feel good about Notre Dame’s chances here, but they have to survive the early wave of purple and orange and not turn the ball over. If you remember the beginning of the 2012 Oklahoma game, the Sooners mounted two drives around an inept Irish possession, but the defense stiffened and allowed only three points. If Kizer has a slow start, the defense gives up a couple big plays and that crowd gets rocking as the storm intensifies…that would not be ideal.

This is going to be a ton of fun. The Irish just need to keep this close going into the half and then lean on their savage offensive line to close things down late. A lot has been made of the Will Fuller/Mackensie match up (fun piece on Fuller mixing speed with smarts), but if Ronnie Stanley and company do their job, Seven having a big game might be unnecessary. Look for both coaching staffs to get creative, as both schools have had this circled on the calendars for some time. I think when it comes down to it, Notre Dame should be able to prevail, but when you combine this kind of road atmosphere with a freshman quarterback and inclement weather, there are no guarantees. 

That said, since we already made it to 4-0, might as well just go all in and burn the damn boats. Go Irish, beat Tigers. Let’s keep the train rolling.


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