Stripped to the bare essentials there’s a football game Saturday night in Death Valley promising to slam the senses. History, legend and reputations won’t matter.
Nationally ranked and undefeated, Clemson and Notre Dame share similar ambitions, and the means to the end correlate to their abilities to handle the moment. For Clemson, it’s about buying into coach Dabo Swinney’s philosophy, that the opponent and ESPN College GameDay and a national TV primetime audience are insignificant to the process.
“This game is the biggest game of the year simply because it is one step closer to being the best,” Swinney said.
“We've been in a lot of these games, a lot of these games where we're playing a great opponent, and we've just got to stay focused on what we do. That's why I think it's important that you are consistent with how you talk to your team, with how you prepare, regardless of who you play.”
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Notre Dame last played here in 1977 and coach Brian Kelly has never been to Death Valley, but because most every game the Irish play is the opponent’s biggest of the season, he anticipates an atmosphere similar to last year’s trips to Florida State, Arizona State and Southern Cal.
“I would think that a good football team makes it raucous,” he said. “They have a good football team. It’s well coached. Our team will have to play well.
“If you play well, you tend to quiet crowds down.”
Kelly lost six starters barely out of the gate including his quarterback. Redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer finished off Virginia then started for the first time against Georgia Tech and passed for 242 yards, but Notre Dame may miss Malik Zaire’s versatility.
“He’s learning along the way,” Kelly said of Kizer. “There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend, but I think that it’s his presence that allows the other 10 players to have a great deal of confidence.
“I would be surprised if the moment was too big for him,” he said. “I’m sure, like everybody else, there will be those butterflies and some nervousness, but I think once we get into the flow of the game he’s going to be fine.”
Winning the line of scrimmages becomes the focal point. Notre Dame has averaged 284.75 rushing yards, 6.74 per carry. Clemson has allowed 114.67, 2.92 per carry. Conversely, Clemson has averaged 188 yards, 4.44 per rush; Notre Dame 134.75, 4.15.
Managing the run and the vulnerability to chunk plays becomes a factor with both defenses trying to force the quarterback from his comfort zone and playing man coverage. Receivers Will Fuller and Corey Robinson are big targets for Kizer, who tends to be more comfortable in the pocket, and Kelly said he’s not going to be shy about running them at Clemson corner Mackensie Alexander.
Coupled with the receiver Mike Williams’ neck injury, opponents have done a reasonably good job of keeping the lid on Clemson’s big-play potential, but quarterback Deshaun Watson has been efficient without the gaudy numbers.
“You would like to see man coverage because it gives you an opportunity because if there’s a breakdown in technique you could have a big play,” said co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
Watson has the patience to waterboard defenses until the dam breaks, though Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith and lineman Sheldon Day may be among the best Clemson faces this season.
The three-point win at Louisville cost Clemson two spots in the polls, which means the Tigers need this game even if they run the table and win the ACC Championship.
“I think every game is a statement game for us,” said linebacker Travis Blanks. “The media wants us to buy into that, that this is the game that we solidify ourselves. This is the game that we show the world that we’re national championship contenders.”