SOUTH BEND – The big day is finally here.
Notre Dame has been practicing and playing with one eye on this game for at least the last few weeks and likely since before the season began. It's one thing to blow out weaker teams like Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, which the Irish have done the last two weeks. It would be quite another to take down the No. 1 team in the country and stop a 36-game regular season winning streak, both of which Notre Dame can accomplish with a victory tonight.
The Irish come into their matchup against top-ranked Clemson with the longest active winning streak in the country at 12 games and the longest home winning streak in the history of Notre Dame Stadium at 22. Despite that, and despite the fact that Tigers star quarterback Trevor Lawrence – the favorite for the Heisman Trophy – will not play tonight after a positive COVID-19 test last week, Notre Dame is a 5.5-point underdog tonight. The oddsmakers still don't believe this Irish team is functionally different from the groups that have lost big games in recent years, including a 30-3 defeat against Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff at the Cotton Bowl. Notre Dame has a chance to prove a lot of people wrong tonight and earn its first top 5 victory since 2005. Coach Brian Kelly could add another notch to his growing legacy, as well; Kelly is 0-5 against top 5 opponents.
Beating Clemson won't be easy, even with true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei starting in place of Lawrence. For starters, the Tigers have arguably the best running back in the country in Travis Etienne, who has run for 1,600 yards in each of the last two seasons and is averaging 5.9 yards per carry in his senior season. He ran for 109 yards on just 14 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown, in Clemson's win over the Irish at the Cotton Bowl and Notre Dame will devote plenty of attention on the defensive front to slowing him down. The Irish have had one of the top-ranked defenses in the country all season and one of the best matchups of the night will be the speed of Notre Dame's defense – especially linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton – against the elusiveness of Etienne. Notre Dame believes slowing him down will be the key to victory.
Even if Etienne is relatively limited, however, the Irish will still have to deal with Uiagalelei. He's no Lawrence, but the top-ranked pro-style passer in the 2020 recruiting class can flat out sling it and he showed a maturity that belied his inexperience in leading the Tigers back from 18 points down in a 34-28 win over Boston College in his first collegiate start last week. Notre Dame will do everything it can to confuse and rattle him – there will be plenty of exotic pressures on the menu – but the Eagles tried that last week and Clemson was able to protect Uiagalelei well enough that he had time to throw anyway and he went for 342 yards and two touchdowns.
Uiagalelei has the advantage of throwing to wide receiver Amari Rodgers, one of the most explosive wideouts in the country. Rodgers is averaging 14.7 yards per catch and is 10th nationally with 586 receiving yards. TaRiq Bracy will likely have the unenviable task of trying to slow him down.
On offense, meanwhile, Notre Dame will try to stick with what's been working: the run game behind a beastly offensive line that ranks among the best in the country. Clemson is giving up just 2.7 yards per carry, making this easily the toughest challenge that line has faced all season, but the Tiger 'D' is a little bit softer than usual with three starters missing on the defensive front: linebackers James Skalski, who had 105 tackles last season, and Mike Jones Jr. and All-ACC defensive lineman Tyler Davis are out against the Irish.
Quarterback Ian Book hasn't been particularly explosive this season, but he has to be prepared to make some deep throws if Clemson tries to load the box to stop the run. He's without wide receivers Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin Jr., who are out with injuries, but he should be able to find Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek down field if the need arises. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer could have a big game, as well, with Skalski and Jones Jr. out.
Bottom line: the Irish have a chance to change the narrative surrounding their program tonight. They are 29-3 since the start of the 2018 season and despite all of that success, the book on Notre Dame is that it still occupies a lower tier than programs such as Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. There's a talent gap there that the Irish can't overcome, or so the theory goes. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, with Lawrence out, the Irish have all the pressure on them, despite being the underdog. Kelly has raved all season about this team's focus and has insisted it is good enough to play with the best teams in the country. Tonight, the Irish will have to prove him right. If they do, it will be a whole new day for the program starting Sunday.