The Notre Dame football game against Clemson will be won in the trenches.
As the Cotton Bowl between Notre Dame football and Clemson approaches, most people will be tempted to talk about the skill positions. It’s more fun to talk about. The skill positions are what the average fan knows. These are the players who score, and have the most obvious effect on the game.
However, when the ball is kicked off between the Irish and Tigers, the skill position players will be the least important on the field.
Instead, the Cotton Bowl will be won in the trenches. Every football game is won in the trenches, frankly, but the linemen for both teams will be even more important than usual come December 29th.
Coming into this season, most people considered the Clemson defensive line to be the best in the country — full of NFL talent. Over the course of this season, they proved it. Christian Wilkins is the name everyone knows, as the leader of that vaunted defensive line. He commands double teams, and for good reason. Wilkins doesn’t lead the team in sacks, though. That’s Clelin Ferrell, with 10.5. Ferrell also leads the defensive line with 47 total tackles.
To counter this, Notre Dame’s offensive line must have the game of their collective lives. They need to make holes for Dexter Williams. If they don’t, and the Irish can’t run the football, and it will allow the Clemson defensive line to pin their ears back and attack Ian Book.
If Book isn’t given time to throw, then an embarrassing repeat of the 2013 BCS National Championship Game is coming.
It is possible that Notre Dame’s game plan is to throw, so the run can be opened up later in the game. If this is true, the offensive line still needs to hold up against the Clemson defensive line, so Book has time to distribute the ball.
On the other hand, Clemson’s best offensive player is without a doubt running back Travis Etienne. On the season, he averages 8.3 yards per carry. It is imperative that Notre Dame’s defensive line disrupt Clemson’s running game. That doesn’t necessarily mean making the tackle, either. It also means filling gaps so linebackers can meet Etienne in the hole. It means forcing Etienne to change directions and not run freely.
Notre Dame needs to force freshman Trevor Lawrence to have to throw to beat them. He’s inexperienced and has only played one close game all season. That was at home against Syracuse, and he was knocked out of that game early on. The moment could be too big for him. I don’t think Lawrence can’t beat the Irish, so they can’t let Etienne beat them.
In the end, if Etienne were to beat Notre Dame, it would be because the Clemson offensive line beat the Irish. If the Tigers defense beats Notre Dame, it won’t be because of their secondary, but because of their defensive line. Win the trenches, win the Cotton Bowl.