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Clemson’s Run Game Could Give Notre Dame Fits

Clemson and Notre Dame have a lot in common. The programs put together two of the quietest undefeated regular-season campaigns in recent memory. The Tigers’ credentials were diluted by an unspectacular ACC, the Irish by independent classification and lack of a conference title. Each team has a first-year starting quarterback who won the job in late September. Both have breakout running backs and elite defenses.

Admission to the playoff has become the expectation for Clemson.1 Meanwhile, Notre Dame has rebounded from a four-win campaign in 2016 to find itself on the doorstep of the national championship game for the first time in six years.

Though the teams may be similar in many ways, there’s still plenty that separates them. Las Vegas oddsmakers don’t see the matchup as being particularly close, opening with the Tigers as 10.5-point favorites. According to FiveThirtyEight’s college football prediction model, Clemson has a 36 percent probability of winning the national title, while Notre Dame’s probability is considerably lower, at 11 percent.

Here’s what to look for when the two programs meet in the Cotton Bowl semifinal Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern.

Can Notre Dame temper Clemson’s run game or run-pass option attack?

In the words of Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill, “You’ve got to stop the run in order to beat this team.”

Behind the fearless Travis Etienne, the Tigers feature one of the best inside rushing attacks in the nation. Most of the successful action is funneled inside the tackles, as evidenced by the Tigers ranking inside the top 15 nationally in rushing yards on carries taken up the middle, toward the left guard and toward the right guard. The team averages 6.8 yards per carry, which leads the Football Bowl Subdivision, and has compiled 46 rushing touchdowns, good for third best nationally. For a program that had six running backs selected in the NFL draft over the past decade, this is undoubtedly the best ground game that head coach Dabo Swinney has overseen.

The Tigers have a punishing ground game

Clemson’s rushing attack by season* under head coach Dabo Swinney

Percentage of …
Season Rushing Yards per Game Yards per Rush First Downs or TDs Per Rush Rushes For zero or Negative Yards
2018 259.8 6.75 33.6% 16.0%
2017 194.1 4.70 27.5 20.9
2016 169.7 4.31 26.6 20.8
2015 223.0 4.93 27.2 18.6
2014 146.5 3.53 22.4 24.7
2013 174.6 4.17 26.7 23.9
2012 191.1 4.22 28.2 21.6
2011 158.5 4.19 24.3 26.0
2010 139.0 3.95 21.4 24.5
2009 170.4 4.81 25.8 25.0

* In full seasons under Swinney, who took over as head coach midway through the 2008 season

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Etienne amassed 1,463 rushing yards this season, the fifth-most in the country and the second-most by a Clemson running back in the past 15 years. Nearly half of those yards came after contact — and despite his collision-inviting style, the loping Etienne is among five major-conference running backs to tote the rock at least 175 times without fumbling. He has cleared the goal line on 21 carries, one shy of the national lead. It appears that Wide Receiver U has itself an elite running back.

Behind Etienne on the depth chart are Lyn-J Dixon and Adam Choice, each of whom has more than 50 carries and 500 rushing yards on the season. Clemson features three of the 15 best players this season in yards per carry (among players with at least 50 carries).

An imposing run game opens up the field for Trevor Lawrence, the freshman quarterback and No. 1 national recruit from the 2018 class. The 19-year-old ranks 12th in FBS in Total Quarterback Rating, at 79.1, and has proved to be more than capable since usurping veteran Kelly Bryant’s starting spot. On play-action looks, he leads the nation in touchdowns per attempt.

As it happens, Notre Dame likely has the best pass defense of any team in the playoff.

The Irish can stop air attacks

This year’s playoff participants in expected points added (EPA) on pass defense

ranking Team Pass defense EPA
2 Notre Dame 96.95
7 Alabama 84.36
15 Clemson 68.46
120 Oklahoma -94.92

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Irish rank second nationally in passing yards allowed per pass attempt (5.35) and passing yards allowed per completion (9.54). Specifically, the Notre Dame secondary is adept at taking away play-action throws. Only three teams allowed fewer yards per play on the play-action. Eight of Notre Dame’s 20 takeaways this season came against play-action looks.2

However, the interior of the Irish defense has been suspect, and this year’s team is among coach Brian Kelly’s worst at stopping the run, with -10.9 expected points added on run defense. Opponents pick up 2.52 yards after contact per rush against Notre Dame, placing the Irish 70th of the 130 FBS teams. This will be the best secondary Lawrence has faced, but it might not matter if Etienne can find the running avenues he’s grown accustomed to breaking through this season.

Will Clemson’s NFL-ready defensive line raze the Irish?

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables’s defensive line is formidable, probably the best in the country. It’s certainly the most NFL-ready — ESPN projects that three of its members will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. As Irish quarterback Ian Book put it, “In terms of their defensive line, everyone knows about them.”

The quartet of Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence3 and Austin Bryant is an embarrassment of riches that keeps opponents up at night. It’s the teeth of a defense that ranks first in efficiency (92.3), yards allowed per play (4.2)4 and yards allowed per carry (2.6); second in points allowed per game (13.7); and a dismal third in stuff rate (27.0 percent), which is the percentage of carries stopped at or before the line of scrimmage, and sacks (46). This year’s Clemson squad is in line to rank first in expected points added on rush defense and fourth in defensive efficiency among all FBS teams since 2005, the first year ESPN tracked both stats.

This Clemson defense is among the best

The top five FBS teams since 2005 by defensive efficiency and expected points added on run defense

Season Team Defensive Efficiency Season Team Run defense EPA
2016 Alabama 97.4 2018 Clemson 109.4
2011 Alabama 94.5 2007 Oregon State 103.1
2014 Clemson 92.5 2012 Rutgers 102.6
2018 Clemson 92.4 2016 Alabama 99.5
2015 Alabama 91.6 2015 Boston College 97.0

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

They get teams off the field, having helped force the most three-and-outs (81) in the country — at a clip of 44.3 percent. This is largely because offensive plays tend to go the opposite direction against Clemson. A measly 30.6 percent of plays earn five yards or more against Venables’s defense, the best rate in the country, while 40.5 percent of plays earn zero or negative yards, the third-best rate in the country.

The Irish offensive line has done a commendable job keeping Book upright. Notre Dame is among the best 35 teams in sack rate and in the top 15 in sack rate on passing downs. However, Notre Dame’s offensive line has been pushed around, as evidenced by the team ranking outside the top 100 in line yards, passing downs line yards per carry, opportunity rate and stuff rate.

Clemson has controlled games in the trenches all season. To pull off the upset, Notre Dame must first temper the Tigers’ quartet.

Check out our latest college football predictions.


  1. This will be the fourth consecutive appearance for the Tigers, who are a combined 53-4 since 2015.

  2. Only five teams in the nation forced more turnovers against play-action passes.

  3. Lawrence may be ineligible for the playoff after he tested positive for a banned substance.

  4. Tied with Miami and Mississippi State.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.