CFB: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Week 10 Preview

By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

After a straightforward return to action against Pittsburgh last week, Notre Dame now face Clemson. Can they continue their success even though the College Playoffs remain unlikely?

Looking back at last week

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After a much-needed week off, Notre Dame returned home to face the Pitt Panthers. Pat Narduzzi’s team had recently beaten the same Louisville side that handed the Irish their second defeat of the season. Last week, however, was a timely reminder that the transitive property exists in mathematics, not college football.

ND fans watching Sam Hartman throw two early interceptions could have been forgiven for fearing the game would turn into a low-scoring, mistake-ridden slugfest. Potentially ending in a narrow defeat. Instead, the team relied on its strengths in the second half of the season. An elite defense, coupled with big plays from an improving special teams unit. At the same time, the offense continued to complement that game plan.

Chris Tyree helped calm any nerves with a first-quarter 82-yard punt return. A half-time 17-0 lead highlighted Pitt’s problems on offense. However, few in Notre Dame Stadium expected the Irish to add another 41 points after the break. A pick-six and a fumble return TD helped make it 37-0 less than halfway through the third quarter.

Two short-yardage Estimé TD runs gave Audric three for the day to cap another 100-yard game for Notre Dame’s leading rusher. Pittsburgh’s starting QB, Christian Veilleux, tossed four interceptions, meaning his backup, Nate Yarnell, saw fourth-quarter action. He helped avoid a shutout with a 25-yard TD pass. Marcus Freeman then did likewise, giving Steve Angeli some mop-up duty for the Irish. He found freshman tight end Cooper Flanagan, for a 19-yard TD throw to round out a lop-sided 58-7 victory in the 92nd meeting of the old rivals.

All in all, it was a productive day’s work for a Notre Dame team seeking to finish the season on a high. Four of the five Running Backs got carries, and twelve separate players caught passes. Wide Receivers Jayden Thomas and Tobias Merriweather both had two receptions. A welcome sign for ND fans, given the injuries that have hampered WR play in the last month. On defense, the absence of Cam Hart and Benjamin Morrison didn’t negatively affect the Irish pass defense, as both backup Cornerbacks had INTs.

The week ahead

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Clemson Tigers (Memorial Stadium); 3.30pm EDT; 8.30pm IST/BST

Two months ago, I feared this could be the hardest game Notre Dame would face this season. Going down to Death Valley for a prime-time night game against a Tigers team with perhaps at most one loss. Hugely motivated to get revenge for last season’s shellacking up at Notre Dame. Yeah, maybe not.

It’s going to be a long off-season in South Carolina as Dabo takes stock and tries to assess where it all went wrong in 2023. He won’t be short of places to start, primarily on offense. Bringing Garrett Riley on board from TCU has not had the desired effect. The offensive line play – usually a Clemson strength – has been below average in both pass and run-blocking—music to the ears of ND Defensive Line coach Al Washington.

Running back Will Shipley, is more talented than his 2023 numbers suggest. His longest run this year is a surprising 21 yards. QB Cade Klubnik, had a harsh introduction to FBS football, throwing a pick almost immediately upon his late introduction into the game in South Bend last season. He leads the nation in fumbles so far this time around. This is a major reason why they’ve lost to the four best teams they’ve faced so far (including NC State and Duke sides that lost at home to the Irish).

One area that has not been a problem is defense, especially against the pass. This may encourage and allow the Tigers to stack the box against the Notre Dame run game. Last year, the Irish were able to lean on the run and have their way with the Clemson OL by the fourth quarter. The home team have the defense to keep Saturday’s game close. How well they can shut down Estimé, Love, and Price may determine the outcome.

A close game always emphasises the importance of Special Teams. ND’s units are hitting peak form. Clemson has used four different field goal kickers already this season.

Game Prediction

Notre Dame 23-17 Clemson

The #15 Irish have played significantly better at home, especially the OL. But they do say that ‘defense travels’. And Notre Dame’s will have to. A good start against a team and home fans low on confidence could see the Irish win more comfortably than Vegas predicts. However, I suspect a proud Clemson side will not let that happen, and the Irish will have to gut out a narrow fourth-quarter success.

Where to watch:

No coverage in Ireland and Britain

ABC (in the USA)

Playoff Picture

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The opening College Football Playoff rankings saw the Irish slotted a little lower than many fans anticipated, at #15. The second highest-ranked two-loss team. With the aim now being a 10-2 finish and NY6 bowl, the biggest problem for ND is that they have lost to the two best teams to date on their schedule, and their best wins (Duke, USC and Clemson, if they go 10-2) are all losing games at a disconcerting rate.

That said, there is still plenty of scope for teams ahead of them to drop at least one more game, especially in conferences where they have deliberately back-loaded the schedules. This week sees Texas, Ole Miss, Missouri and Oklahoma all facing opponents capable of causing an upset. Any and all of these would be a significant boost to ND’s NY6 hopes.