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Behind enemy bylines: Clemson vs. Notre Dame

Notre Dame Athletics via the ACC // Courtesy

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) looks for a touchdown in the second overtime of the Tigers’ top-four game against the Notre Dame Fight’ Irish on Nov. 7, 2019 in Notre Dame, Ind. Uiagalelei threw for a school freshman record 439 passing yards against the Irish.

Ahead of Clemson football’s matchup with Notre Dame on Saturday, Justin Robertson, the sports editor of The Tiger, spoke to Aidan Thomas, the sports editor of Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer.
Justin Robertson (JR): With Notre Dame starting out 0-2 and then winning five of the next six games, what has the vibe around campus been like surrounding the football team?
Aidan Thomas (AT): It’s definitely kind of a weird vibe. It seems to alter every week. In one sense, there’s a little bit of frustration because you look at who Notre Dame has beaten, and they have two Top 20 wins on the road and a tight loss to Ohio State. You just take care of business in those other two losses, and you’re probably sitting at like No. 8 right now. So, I think there’s a little frustration in that sense of what could have been with this season. If we took care of business in those two games, we would probably win nine out of 10 times.
But beyond that, I think, overall, people have kind of settled into the reality of the season that it isn’t quite the season that maybe people thought it was going be — not necessarily the caliber of team we’ve had the last couple of years. I think there’s still a lot of excitement around the team and the talent that we see every week.
JR: How, in your eyes, has Marcus Freeman done compared to Brian Kelly as the head coach so far?
AT: In my eyes, I would say a lot better. Brian Kelly is currently a better coach. I think Freeman will eventually become a better coach than Kelly. But right now, just on raw experience, I would say if we had Brian Kelly, Notre Dame would be 6-2, not 5-3. We probably would have won the Stanford game under Brian Kelley. I do think Marcus Freeman is elevating the ceiling of the program as a whole. I think Notre Dame is going to have a much better shot at a national championship within a couple of years than they ever would have under Brian Kelly.
I think Brian Kelly maxed out what he could do. He was really good for Notre Dame for about eight to nine years, and then really over the last few years with recruiting and where he left the recruiting for Freeman, did show that he was kind of maxed out with what he was able to do and what recruits were kind of seeing in the program. So, I think right now, Kelly is a better coach, but Freeman is going to kind of get to that level. And then once you combine that with his recruiting, which is better than Kelly’s, it’s going to be a good time for him.
JR: What is the biggest strength of Notre Dame’s team that Clemson could have trouble with on Saturday?
AT: I think it’s going to be strength against strength for Notre Dame’s offense against Clemson’s defense. Notre Dame’s going to want to run the ball as much as they can, ideally 45 times or more if they can. Clemson is really good against the run, but I think some teams have had a little bit of success, and Notre Dame offers a versatility that no other team has, so I don’t think Clemson has seen that. We’ve got a true power back in Audric Estime, and we’ve got a guy that’s kind of a developing power back but also a little bit more of a finesse guy in Logan Diggs. Chris Tyree has pure speed and can be a slot receiver at times out of the backfield.
So, I think the running game offers a lot of different dimensions that, combined with Notre Dame’s offensive line, could give Clemson probably more issues than they’ve had with defending the run this year. 
JR: What is Notre Dame’s biggest weakness that Clemson could exploit? 
AT: I would say it’s just In the passing game. Some of it is certainly as the quarterback play, but also some of it is wide receivers and a lack of wide receiver depth. We really only run out three or four wide receivers that really seem to get targets on a weekly basis. So, I think that’s just a weakness. I think Clemson is going to have the guys to match up with Notre Dame’s receivers, so if they’re shutting down (Michael) Meyer, Notre Dame’s going to have a lot of issues getting things going through the air.
JR: Who’s an under-the-radar player for Notre Dame that Clemson fans should keep an eye on throughout the game? 
AT: On offense, I would say Jayden Thomas. As far as under the radar, he’s probably my best bet. He’s a wide receiver coming along in the last few games. He had two touchdowns and seven or eight catches over the last few games and started to become a more established target and a good red-zone guy. I would say they really like targeting him out of the play action, which, if Notre Dame is getting the run game going, you could see them try to stretch a little bit vertically to Jayden Thomas.
And then, defensively, depending on what you consider under the radar, I would say TaRiq Bracy. He’s not necessarily under the radar in the sense that he’s a better starter all year, but coming into the year, Notre Dame fans didn’t know what to expect. He had a starting role during the last two seasons and lost it both years. So, the fact that he’s kind of having a career year and stepping up as a nickel has been huge for their packages and what they’re able to do. So, he’ll be a huge factor and probably take a lot of top assignments from the Clemson receiving core. 
JR: Who do you think will win, and what’s your score prediction for this game?
AT: I’ve gone back and forth on this one a lot. I see Clemson putting up somewhere in the range of 24 to 28 points. I don’t think Clemson has an explosive offense that is going to do a ton against Notre Dame. But I think they’re going to have enough successful drives that they’ll take advantage of Notre Dame’s bad red zone defense and finish off a couple of drives. I do think it just comes down to the Notre Dame rushing attack against the Clemson defense.
I would lean to say that because Notre Dame’s bent poor with explosive plays this year, and I don’t think they necessarily have what it takes to engineer more than a few touchdowns, I think I would probably say 24-20 with Clemson getting the win. I think it’ll be close. If Notre Dame’s offense gets going early and it gets a couple of first-quarter scores, I can see Notre Dame winning this game, but I think, ultimately, I would predict Clemson right now.
Interview responses are edited for length and clarity.

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