Irish Defense Ready For Prolific Tigers Offense
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame All-American cornerback Julian Love already knows all about Clemson. Blame his roommate.
Love’s roomie is Troy Pride Jr., another cornerback for the Fighting Irish, who will play Clemson on Dec. 29 in a playoff semifinal in Arlington, Texas. Pride is from Greer, South Carolina, a 50-mile drive from Clemson.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of their games this year,” Love said. “Sometimes they might play before us. So me and Troy like to watch them play. Troy is a South Carolina guy so that’s kind of his bread and butter.”
Love, Pride and the rest of coordinator Clark Lea’s unheralded Notre Dame defense will try not to lose their appetite preparing for the prolific Tigers.
Clemson is ranked 10th or better nationally in total offense (No. 5, 529.8 yards per game), scoring (No. 5, 45.4 points per game) and rushing (No. 10, 259.8 yards per game). They have scored 41 or more points in eight of their 13 victories, including a season-high 77 against Louisville.
Dabo Swinney’s offense, coordinated by Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, features a stable of running backs led by of 5-foot-10, 200-pound sophomore Travis Etienne, a true freshman quarterback in 6-foot-6 Trevor Lawrence, a talented receiving corps led by wide receivers Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and Hunter Renfrow, and an offensive line anchored by first-team AP All-America left tackle Mitch Hyatt.
Etienne has 1,463 yards on 176 rushes (8.3 per carry) and 21 of Clemson’s 46 touchdowns on the ground. Higgins has 52 receptions for 802 yards (15.4 average) and 10 touchdowns while Rodgers and Renfrow have 47 and 43 receptions, respectively.
“You put the film on and you know the challenge that exists,” Lea said. “But it’s why you want to be in the playoffs. At this point, you’re not expecting to see anything but the best. I know our players are going to be excited to compete on this stage.”
Lawrence has completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards and 24 touchdowns against four interceptions. If he has any freshman nerves, he’s not showing them much as he preps for the Fighting Irish defense, 10th-best in points allowed per game (17.3) but only No. 20 overall.
“All that stuff lessens and lessens the more you get prepared. We’re preparing the right way,” Lawrence said. “I’ll be a little nervous before the game because it’s a big game. I think it’s good to be a little nervous. It shows you’re excited and ready.”
Rodgers praised the play of both Love and Pride.
“They’re a smart group. They don’t get beat deep often. They’re physical, too,” he said. “And their safeties are very good tacklers, so it’s going to be a good matchup.”
For his part, Love was really impressed with Lawrence, who Lea said “can throw the ball from the hash to the sideline without blinking an eye.”
“(Lawrence) gets all the hype he deserves,” said Love, who finished fifth with 61 tackles, broke up 15 passe, had an interception and three fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown. “He’s young, but he’s shown this year that he is very talented.”
Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill, who has overcome a broken hand and a sprained ankle this season, got to meet Etienne in Atlanta prior to an awards show earlier this month. He couldn’t believe his eyes.
“We were chatting a little bit and I said to (Etienne), ‘You look a lot smaller in person that I thought you would be,'” said Tranquill, who has 75 tackles and 3.5 sacks this season. “He runs bigger than he is. He will be the best overall guy we’ve seen this year in terms of running with power and running with finesse.”
Linebacker Te’von Coney, who led the Irish with 107 tackles, knows Notre Dame will have its hands full. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery said he was focused on beating Clemson and then seeking a goal that has eluded Notre Dame for 30 years — a national championship.
“We have a great challenge in Clemson,” Tillery said. “We haven’t reached our goals yet, not even close. We have to win this game in order to make it to the next one. That’s the one we play for around here.”