Tigers, Irish vie for spot in national championship game in Cotton Bowl

Tigers, Irish vie for spot in national championship game in Cotton Bowl
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney shake hands at the coaches' press conference on Friday. (Source: CottonBowl.com)

DALLAS, TX (WIS) - For the fourth time in five years, the Clemson Tigers find themselves in the hunt for a national championship.

This time, Dabo Swinney and company are in Dallas hoping to win a third national semifinal contest. To do that, they’ll have to get past an undefeated Notre Dame squad looking to make their first national title appearance since 2012

“It’s definitely a BYOG game,” said Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney. “Ain’t no doubt. They all are. We won’t have a hurricane in here for sure, I don’t think. This is definitely a game that’s going to take a lot of guts and courage, a lot of heart. And again, those are things individually you have to bring yourself.”

The Tigers and Fighting Irish have only met three times heading into Saturday’s matchup. The last time these two teams met was back in 2015 while Hurricane Joaquin provided a rainy setting for both teams. This year, the Tigers and Irish will play in more comfortable confines at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

“I mean, it’s unbelievable,” said Tigers running back Travis Etienne. “Just the Jumbotron, it’s crazy how big it is. I was there on Monday just looking up at the Jumbotron all day. It’s just crazy. It’s a humbling experience to be in that stadium.”

Both Clemson and Notre Dame enter this weekend’s contest with perfect records. The Irish averages just shy of 34 points per game. Notre Dame is led in the passing game by Ian Book. The junior signal-caller has completed over 70 percent of his passes for 2,468 yards and 19 touchdowns. One of his favorite targets is Miles Boykin. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound senior leads the Irish with 54 catches for 803 yards and eight touchdowns. In the running game, Notre Dame relies on Dexter Williams. The senior running back is the top rusher for Brian Kelly’s squad with 941 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns.

If the Tigers hope to stop this high-powered offense, they’ll have to be solid on defense yet again.

“Games like this always come down to the trenches,” said Tigers defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. “That's obviously where it starts and where it ends, in the trenches. Both sides of the game have to be on -- our offensive line and defensive line have to play well because they're so talented and good. We definitely have our work cut out for us, too. Special teams, I feel like games like this come down to playing special teams. That's my experience. You can set the tone for the game on special teams and, you know, that's where so many different things can happen.”

Defensively, the Irish are solid as well. Opponents scored an average of just over 17 points this season against the Irish defense. That makes Notre Dame the 10th-best scoring defense in the country. With that in mind, Clemson’s offense will have quite the challenge on their hands against this unit.

“Very sound,” said Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott when asked about the Notre Dame defense and defensive coordinator Clark Lea. “Not a lot of guys running free and every play is contested, the running game and in the passing game. So, I have a lot of respect that he's done an excellent job this year.”

Te’von Coney is the top tackler for the Irish with 107 this season. The senior linebacker also has nine tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Also leading the Notre Dame defense is junior defensive lineman Julian Okwara with 11.5 tackles for loss, senior Jerry Tillery with 8.5 sacks, and junior safety Jalen Elliott with four interceptions.

“They represent a lot of challenge,” said Tigers running back Travis Etienne. “They've got a great defense, and they're going to give you a big hit. So you've got to take what they give you. And they're a very physical defense. And you're going to see -- they're just very physical. So four physical quarters of the game are going to be tough. And, I mean, you have to bring it each and every play.”

No. 2 Clemson will face No. 3 Notre Dame in AT&T Stadium Saturday at 4 p.m.

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