Written By: Ryan Lippert|@Lippert42
As we are beyond the halfway point in the college football season, we have had some very exciting games so far. However, none of these games have had quite as high of stakes as the matchup that should be on every football fan’s radar this weekend. This Saturday night, the top-ranked Clemson Tigers will go on the road to South Bend to face the fourth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As their rankings show, both of these teams remain undefeated and are looking to cement their place in the College Football Playoff. Barring an unexpected upset, the team that wins this game should secure a spot at the end of the season. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at this week’s College Football Game of the Week between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Clemson Tigers.
Can D.J. Uiagalelei Step Up in the National Spotlight?
One of the biggest stories in college football in the past two weeks has been Heisman frontrunner and the early favorite to be the top prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, testing positive for COVID-19. Due to this, Lawrence missed last weekend’s game against Boston College and will miss this weekend’s game as well. Stepping up in his place is true freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei who is no stranger to the spotlight as he was one of the top players in the country coming out of high school and has very high expectations. While they got off to a slow start as a team. Uiagalelei stepped up in the second half against Boston College, throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns in the 34-28 victory. His go-to target will be receiver Amari Rodgers who leads the team with 40 receptions for 586 yards and six touchdowns. He also seemed to establish a connection with Cornell Powell who had 11 catches for 105 yards last week. Sophomore receiver Frank Ladson Jr. will also be very involved in the passing game.
Uiagalelei will be facing a talented Notre Dame defense that has only allowed 10.3 points per game this season. Against the pass, they have given up 173.5 yards per game and only two total passing touchdowns and come away with four interceptions. Their secondary consists of NC State grad transfer Nick McCloud and junior TaRiq Bracy at the corners with a promising sophomore in Kyle Hamilton at free safety and senior Shaun Crawford at strong safety.
Luckily for Uiagalelei, he has one of the most talented running backs in the country in Travis Etienne to rely on. Etienne has established himself as a true threat for the Heisman trophy as well as improved his already high draft stock this season. He has carried the ball 103 times for 606 yards and nine touchdowns along with 29 receptions for 434 yards and two scores. Junior Lyn-J Dixon and senior Darien Rencher should also see some carries although Etienne will see the majority.
Etienne will be facing a Notre Dame front seven that has been solid against the run this season, allowing only 93.7 rushing yards per game and four total rushing touchdowns so far. Their defensive front is led by four talented seniors on the defensive line in Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji at the ends with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa at tackle and Kurt Hinish at nose. Behind them, senior Drew White is the starter at middle linebacker with fellow senior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and junior Shayne Simon on the outside. Junior Bo Bauer and sophomore Jack Kiser will also see time in the linebacker rotation.
Notre Dame Has a High-Powered Offense of Their Own
While they had high expectations coming into this season as a team, the Fighting Irish have exceeded them so far. As good as they have been on defense, their offense hasn’t been a slouch either. This impressive unit is led by senior quarterback Ian Book who is off to an outstanding start this season. Book has thrown for 1,225 yards with seven touchdowns and only one interception so far. His top receiver has been senior Javon McKinley who has 14 receptions for 264 yards. While McKinley has led the team in yards, it has been true freshman tight end Michael Mayer who has stepped up in a big way this season with 15 catches for 168 yards and two scores. Northwestern grad transfer Ben Skowronek and senior Avery Davis have also been key contributors in the passing game.
Book will be facing a Clemson defense that has stepped up so far this season, allowing only 15.6 points per game. Against the pass, the Tigers have allowed 174.9 yards per game and eight touchdowns while coming away with nine interceptions. Senior free safety Nolan Turner leads the Tigers with three interceptions so far. He is joined in the secondary by Lannden Zanders at strong safety with junior Derion Kendrick and sophomore Sheridan Jones at the corners.
While Book is the leader of this offense, it has been a star out of the backfield that has taken over as the top playmaker for the Fighting Irish this season. Sophomore Kyren Williams has truly burst onto the scene as the lead back with 105 carries for 600 yards and seven touchdowns so far along with 12 receptions for 180 yards. Freshman Chris Tyree and junior C’Bo Flemister should also see some action out of the backfield.
Williams will be facing his biggest challenge yet as he is going up against a Clemson front seven that has only allowed 99.9 rushing yards per game and three total rushing touchdowns this season. However, their front seven does have some injury concerns as linebacker James Skalski will be out with a groin injury and the status of defensive tackle Tyler Davis is up in the air due to an MCL injury. Even with Skalski out, the Tigers have two linebackers in sophomore Jake Venables and junior Baylon Spector who have stepped up this season. Spector currently leads the team with 39 tackles. They will be joined in the linebacker core by sophomore Mike Jones Jr. In front of them, Clemson has a very talented, young defensive line. Sophomore K.J. Henry and true freshman Myles Murphy will be the starters at the ends with junior Xavier Thomas rotating in the second half as he will miss the first half because of a targeting penalty last weekend. Standout freshman Bryan Breese will start at one defensive tackle spot while sophomore Darnell Jefferies and senior Nyles Pinckney will look to fill the void if Tyler Davis can’t go at the other tackle.
As I already mentioned, this game has a ton of College Football Playoff ramifications surrounding it, making it the most important game of the college football season so far. The Tigers will definitely miss Lawrence as they did last weekend, but Uiagalelei is a talented quarterback as well and I see him stepping up as needed this weekend. It will also help that he can rely on Etienne out of the backfield. The same goes for Book as he will make plays for the Irish to help manage the game but also has Williams to fall back on. I see this game being very close down to the wire with the first strong defense to break likely losing this game. At the end of the day, the overall talent of the Tigers will give them a slight edge. This will serve as the true coming-out party for Uiagalelei as he gives us an early glimpse of the next great Clemson quarterback. I have the Tigers holding on to win this one 28-24. While this will be a huge loss for Notre Dame, make no mistake about it, they are a very talented football team that could claw their way back into the College Football Playoff to force a rematch between these two teams.