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Notre Dame set for showdown against Clemson

Even if the Irish win, they figure to face the Tigers again in the ACC title game.

Safety Kyle Hamilton and the vaunted Irish defense have allowed just 10.3 points per game this season.
Safety Kyle Hamilton and the vaunted Irish defense have allowed just 10.3 points per game this season.
AP

Editor’s note: Tonight’s Clemson-Notre Dame game, which is scheduled at 6:35 p.m. on NBC, will move to USA Network when NBC News begins its coverage of President-elect Biden’s speech at 7 p.m. Once coverage of the speech ends, the game will return to NBC.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A funny thing happened this week on the way to college football’s latest Game of the Century.

Both head coaches did everything they could — at least publicly — to let some of the air out of the highly anticipated matchup between top-ranked Clemson (7-0) and fourth-ranked Notre Dame (6-0).

“This game, it’s not the end-all for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “For us, we could win this game. But if you lose to [Boston College], this game doesn’t mean anything. We’re still in pursuit of a conference championship.”

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney struck a similar tone when asked about the importance of Clemson’s first trip to Notre Dame Stadium since 1979.

“No matter what happens in this game, if you win it, you’ve got more games to play,” Swinney said. “If you get beat, that doesn’t mean you’re out. You just go back to work.”

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, you may have heard, will sit this one out after testing positive for COVID-19. “Coach Lawrence,” as Swinney called him, will still travel with the team and be on the sideline Saturday night.

Lawrence and his “great eyes” (Swinney’s term) should be quite useful to freshman replacement DJ Uiagalelei, who steered the nation’s second-best scoring offense (46.1 points per game) out of an 18-point hole to a comeback win last week against Boston College.

That pushed the Tigers to 36-1 since the start of the 2018 season and extended a regular-season winning streak that dates back to an October 2017 loss at Syracuse.

This week, however, the cannon-armed Californian will be facing the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense among all teams that have played at least three games. The Irish, led by the quick-twitch artistry of rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton, have allowed just 10.3 points per game.

“You’re not just going to tiptoe through the lilies and beat these guys,” Swinney said. “You have to make some plays.”

This will be the third consecutive week Notre Dame has faced either a redshirt freshman or freshman quarterback, and the last two — Pittsburgh’s Joey Yellen and Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims — were pounded into early submission. The Irish allowed just one garbage-time offensive touchdown the last two weeks while piling up a combined 76-16 scoring margin.

Clemson will surround Uiagalelei with a few more weapons, starting with ACC career rushing leader Travis Etienne. This marks the first visit to South Bend by a top-ranked team since USC 15 years ago. That was the infamous “Bush Push” game.

As fate would have it, former Trojans stars Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, along with Fox College Football studio mate Brady Quinn, the Notre Dame quarterback that day, all find themselves in quarantine this week after a COVID scare hit the TV crew.

Notre Dame senior quarterback Ian Book, 26-3 as the starter, is closing in on Quinn’s school-record 29 victories. However, Book lacks a signature win to this point, having dropped road games at Georgia and Michigan last season and a College Football Playoff semifinal to Clemson (30-3) in the 2018 Cotton Bowl.

Even if the Irish prevail this week, they figure to meet the Tigers again Dec. 19 in the ACC title game in Charlotte, North Carolina. Lawrence should be back and rolling for that one.

After that, who knows? If the teams split their first two meetings, maybe even giving us a pair of instant classics, perhaps a third showdown would loom in the playoff.

Maybe that’s why Kelly, 29-3 since the start of 2018, refused to channel his inner Lou Holtz and attempt any thunderous shakedowns in his pregame public comments.

“You’re going to get opportunities like this and you want to win these games, there’s no doubt,” Kelly said, “but we can’t be overly emotional about this football game and lose sight of the fact we’ve got five more games to play, as well. We can’t empty the tank and say, ‘Hey, we beat Clemson. We’ve arrived.’ No, we haven’t.”