Taming the Tigers Defensive Line
One of the biggest factors contributing to Clemson’s success this year has been the play of their elite defensive front. They are fast, athletic, and have been causing problems for opposing teams all season long. Their front four consists of defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins.
One important note, Clemson had three players fail a drug test this week for a banned drug called ostarine, and one of them was Dexter Lawrence. Clemson is awaiting a B sample test for each player, and for now the status of each player for Saturday is uncertain. For this article, I’m going to assume Lawrence and the others will play.
Ferrell, Lawrence, and Wilkins are all in the Top-20 of Mel Kiper’s 2019 Big Board and have helped pave the way for a defensive unit that ranks third in the country in sacks (46). Wilkins was a unanimous All-American this season while Ferrell won the 2018 Ted Hendricks Award given to the nation’s best defensive end.
Here’s how all four have performed this year:
- Clelin Ferrell: 47 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 1 TD, 2 FF
- Christian Wilkins: 46 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 FR, 1 FF
- Dexter Lawrence: 36 tackles, 7 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR
- Austin Bryant: 36 tackles, 11 TFL, 6.5 sacks
That is about as much production as you can get out of a starting group of defensive lineman and it’s no surprise that being able to limit their impact is going to be a huge factor in the game.
Clemson relies on this group to shut down the run and then get to the quarterback to take away the passing game — and all season it has worked. The Tigers are giving up just 93 yards per game on the ground and 184 through the air.
When teams are able to protect and give their quarterback time to throw, Clemson has been vulnerable in the passing game. Kellen Mond of Texas A&M threw for 430 yards in their Week Two upset bid, while Jake Bentley of South Carolina put up 510 yards and 35 points on Clemson’s defense in the last week of the regular season.
Establishing a run game is important for Notre Dame’s offense, but I don’t think Brian Kelly and Chip Long are so stubborn as to try and lean on it early. Put the ball in Book’s hands and stay in front of the chains. The Irish need to rely on high percentage passes, play action, plays that get the ball out fast or allow Book to scramble and let routes develop downfield.
The Irish have had almost a full month to prepare and gameplan for Clemson’s stout defensive line, and I’m confident we’ll see a few new formations and wrinkles to keep them guessing and off their feet.
It’s cliche, but whoever controls the line of scrimmage is going to win the ball game. If Clemson can swallow the run game and keep Book out of rhythm, it’s going to be hard to get points on the board. On the other hand, if the Irish can out-scheme Clemson and find a way to get a run game going as the game goes on while keeping Book clean in the pocket, we’ll have ourselves a ball game. Limit the impact of the defensive line, eliminate the style of play Clemson wants to play defense, and force their secondary to cover our athletes outside for four quarters.