When Notre Dame joined the Atlantic Coast Conference for the unprecedented 2020 season, Clemson knew they finally had a legitimate challenger for the ACC crown.
That theory will be put to the test on Saturday night when the Fighting Irish clash against the Tigers in college football’s game of the week. Not only do Brian Kelly and company get Clemson on their home turf in South Bend, but the Tigers will also be without preseason Heisman favorite Trevor Lawrence for the game. If there’s ever a chance for Notre Dame to knock off No. 1, it’s this weekend. Here’s how they can pull off the upset.
DJ Uiagalelei can’t handle the bright lights
With Trevor Lawrence sidelines due to a positive COVID-19 test, Clemson will rely on freshman QB DJ Uiagalelei to fill in on Saturday night. Uiagalelei started last week’s game against Boston College, and he was impressive in his first full game of action.
The freshman completed 30 of his 41 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. He also rushed for 25 yards and a score in Clemson’s 34-28 win.
Now, Uiagalelei is clearly a step down from Lawrence, but he was the top quarterback recruit coming out of high school, so the kid can play. Notre Dame can only hope he folds under pressure in his first road game as the starter.
This will be Uiagalelei’s first college game against a true title contender. On the road, in prime time, against one of the best defenses in the country. Can the 19-year-old keep his poise?
Notre Dame’s defense dominates
Head coach Brian Kelly has relied on his defense to carry Notre Dame all season, and that won’t change this weekend. The Fighting Irish have held their opponents to 267.2 yards and just 10.3 points per game through six weeks. They boast the second-best scoring defense in the country among teams that have played more than two games this season.
Notre Dame won’t light up the scoreboard against this Clemson defense, so the Fighting Irish will most likely need to keep the Tigers in the mid- to low-20s if they have a chance at the upset.
Notre Dame’s elite defensive front needs to shut down star running back Travis Etienne and force Uiagalelei to throw the ball downfield. Forcing Clemson into third-and-long scenarios will create ample opportunities for turnovers.
Ian Book can’t be afraid of failure
ND quarterback Ian Book has been a solid starter for over two years. Not spectacular, but solid. Since taking over as the starter in 2018, Book has a record of 26-3. He’s thrown 60 touchdowns and 14 interceptions over that span.
But Book has a tendency to fold in big games. In the College Football Playoff Semifinal against Clemson in 2018, Book threw for 160 yards and no touchdowns in a game Notre Dame needed him to air it out. Last season, Book went 8/25 for just 73 yards in a ranked matchup against Michigan.
He’s never been a prolific passing quarterback, but he can’t be scared to make plays downfield this Saturday night. This is Book’s last chance to lead Notre Dame to the CFP. Air it out. Take some risks. Play to win the game. Don’t play not to lose.
Boston College had success throwing downfield on Clemson last week, and Book needs to do the same if the Fighting Irish want to take down No. 1.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference