The nation’s top all-around running back, Clemson senior Travis Etienne, and Notre Dame sophomore Kyren Williams share some remarkable similarities entering this weekend’s showdown at Notre Dame Stadium.
• The rushing stats are virtually identical: Etienne is 11th nationally with 103 carries for 606 yards for the 7-0 Tigers, while Williams is 12th at 105 carries for 600 yards.
• Both average exactly 15.0 yards per catch, although Etienne has done it on 29 receptions while Williams has achieved it with 12.
• And last week, both coughed up the football for the third time this season. Two have been recovered by the opposition — and last Saturday Etienne’s (his third in as many weeks) was returned for a 97-yard score by Boston College, while Williams’ resulted in a 93-yard tally by Georgia Tech.
Mental resolve was vital in both cases to bounce back in those victories.
“You can’t get down on yourself,” Williams said. “If you get down, you are going to keep on making mistakes. I just know that I’ve got to shake it off, brush it off and come back stronger.
“This week with Clemson … I’m doing my thing to make sure that doesn’t happen again, so I am not really worried about that.”
The main difference, of course, is that Etienne is a two-time ACC Player of the Year and the league’s all-time rushing leader. Williams is just now emerging as one of the up-and-comers in the game after redshirting last season as a freshman and reshaping his body.
“It wasn’t my time to play,” Williams said of 2019. “I accepted that role, I accepted that I would have to wait…I don’t think it had anything to do with my ability or anything to do with the coaches not believing in me. I just think I needed another year to mature and become a more developed football player.”
A second difference is whereas Etienne has basically been a one-man show in his backfield — no one else for the Tigers has more than 87 yards rushing this season — the Irish have three other players, including quarterback Ian Book, who have surpassed 200 yards rushing. That keeps fresh legs churning.
The Notre Dame identity on offense this year under first-year coordinator Tommy Rees and run-game coordinator Lance Taylor especially centers on the ground attack, where the 231-yard average is up 52 yards per game from last year. Where it has been especially effective is third-and-short, highlighted by a 6-of-6 effort versus Pitt two weeks ago. The Panthers had been No. 1 against the run and limited the Irish overall on the ground, but could not stop the short-yardage plays — which opened up other areas of the offense with the pass.
Last year the Fighting Irish converted only 24 of 52 (46.2 percent) chances they had on third-and-3 or less:
• 21 of 32 on third-and-1 for 65.6 percent.
• 2 of 10 on third-and-2 for 20 percent.
• 1 of 10 on third-and-3 for 10 percent.
“As soon as Coach Rees got the job as offensive coordinator, our first meeting early in the spring, that was something he really harped on, being 100 percent on third-and-short,” junior center Jarrett Patterson said. “Quite frankly, we weren’t up to that standard… weren’t even close. That’s something we take a lot of pride in (now).”
“They’re moving the line of scrimmage every single run,” said Williams of the offensive line. “When you believe that, you can stay patient and you can tip-toe behind the line and still be able to get to the hole you need to get to — that’s when you know you have a good offensive line. We’re very grateful for them.”
This week the stakes go up versus the Tigers.
When it comes to facing marquee opponents where Notre Dame is the underdog, the most common thread is the Fighting Irish offense, especially the ground attack, has had a propensity to be a non-factor. This was especially evident in the two meetings against Georgia in 2017 and 2019.
• Versus the 2017 Bulldogs, who lost in overtime to Alabama in the national title game that season, Notre Dame managed just 55 rushing yards, with running back Josh Adams averaging just 2.8 yards on his 19 carries. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, a dangerous running threat, had one yard on 16 attempts.
This from an attack that featured four future NFL offensive linemen, notably top-10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, and finished seventh nationally in rushing yardage at 269.5 yards per game.
• Last year at Georgia, the Irish basically waved the white flag with the run, finishing with 46 yards, with Tony Jones Jr. carrying nine times for 21 yards.
• The last time Notre Dame faced Clemson, in the 2018 College Football Playoff, the Irish managed 88 rushing yards in the 30-3 semifinal defeat. Standout running back Dexter Williams managed a hard-earned 54 yards on 16 attempts against what amounted to a Clemson NFL franchise up front.
• Although Michigan was not a top-10 finisher last year, it was favored at home versus the Irish, and the wet, rainy conditions lent itself to being effective with the ground game. In the Wolverines’ 45-14 romp, they out-rushed Notre Dame 303‑47, with Notre Dame’s four running backs picking up only 35 yards on 18 carries.
• In Notre Dame’s two other defeats (other than Georgia) in 2017, it finished with 109 yards on the ground in the 41-8 debacle at Miami, and in the 38-20 setback at Stanford the Adams/Wimbush tandem managed 111 yards on 36 attempts (3.1 yards per carry).
Much like in 2017, the Notre Dame identity on offense this year is centered on the run. Meanwhile, top Clemson linebacker James Skalski will miss the Notre Dame game because of a groin injury, and nterior anchor Tyler Davis also has been ruled out.
We’re not saying the Irish have to be near their 200-plus average on the ground against Clemson. But to truly “make a run,” it can’t afford the double-digit figures that have occurred in these type of big-game settings.