College Football Playoff: Keys for Notre Dame to Upset Clemson in Cotton Bowl

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December 28, 2018 - 6:12 am

By Nick Shepkowski

DALLAS -- Much has been made about No. 2 Clemson’s defensive line leading up to the College Football Playoff national semifinal in the Cotton Bowl against No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday -- and understandably so. 

Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, a three-time All-American, could be among the first 10 or so players to have his name called at the NFL Draft next April, while Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell project to be first-round picks as well. Add it all up, and you have what most call the most talented defensive line in college football.

It’s fairly safe to say we know what we’ll see from Clemson’s defensive front Saturday, even if Lawrence doesn't play after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug recently. 

But as the 83rd annual Cotton Bowl approaches, it could be the performance of their counterparts that dictates how the game goes. Jerry Tillery, a second-team All-American, is the leader of Notre Dame's defensive line. He's a well-known name in college football circles, in part because of his upbeat personality that was displayed on Showtime's "A Season With: Notre Dame Football" back in 2015. 

The play of Tillery, Julian Okwara, Daelin Hayes and their linemates will be a big key Saturday. Can the Irish contain the Tigers' running game? That answer will tell you in large part how this game plays out.

Clemson is led on offense by freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, the latter of whom would've made a run at the Heisman Trophy in many other years. Etienne rushed for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns. Containing him will be the road to victory for the Irish. 

North Carolina State did the best job of stopping Etienne this season, holding him to 39 rushing yards on 15 carries in Clemson's 41-7 win on Oct. 20. To do so, the Wolfpack stacked the box, selling out to stop the run. What they did was cost themselves in the passing game: Lawrence picked them apart with 380 yards through the air.

While Notre Dame has a better secondary, it still can't sell out to that degree to stop the run. If it does, it will risk getting burned by Lawrence.

The best way to execute is to replicate what Boston College did. The Eagles were the only team that really contained Clemson's running and passing game simultaneously. Clemson won 27-7 on Nov. 11, but only had two offensive touchdowns and went 5-of-15 on third-down conversions. The Eagles defense found success because defensive linemen Zach Allen and Ray Smith both had strong efforts, allowing their linebackers clean paths to make tackles.

In order for Notre Dame to have a chance Saturday, it needs an A-level performance from its defensive front. If the Irish get that, it should be a real interesting game late. 

If they don't, then it may be reminiscent of some bowl-game horror stories that the Irish have been a part of in the last quarter-century.

It’s worth remembering, though, that what needs to happen for Notre Dame to win is something that’s already been accomplished against Clemson this season by a lesser team.

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