This past week, Clemson fans — and probably college football fans across the country — were introduced to a substance called ostarine. A substance so unrecognized that it can take its shape in “a hair product, a cream, a protein or a product you buy online,” per Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s sentiments.
Tigers fans found out in headlines from nearly all sports media networks on Monday (Christmas Eve) that three players would be suspended from Saturday’s Goodyear Cotton Bowl — the National Semifinal against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish — for having the banned substance in their system.
The first two were backups: offensive linemen Zack Giella and Tight End Braden Galloway. The third? Defensive End and all-around stud, Dexter Lawrence. The “B” Sample was taken from the three players to determine whether or not they will be deemed eligible to suit up for Saturday’s Cotton Bowl, and all came back positive.
In what is surely a significant blow to Dabo Swinney’s defensive gameplan, the Tigers will be without their anchor on their defensive line for the first time this season. Pro Football Focus recently conducted a poll ranking the top 50 players in this year’s College Football Playoff as future NFL Draft prospects, and Lawrence was the third best defensive player in the tournament, only behind the likes of potential first-rounders and linemen Quinnen Williams and Jonah Williams from Alabama. He is No. 23 on Mel Kiper’s Big Board heading into the 2019 draft.
As Clemson fans wait for the official ruling on their star pass rusher who is equally essential to stopping the run, Notre Dame fans are feeling all the more optimistic and hopeful in their offense, now that Clemson’s D-Line is presumptuously deteriorated with Lawrence’s chances of playing now 100% dashed.
Sure, Lawrence is backed up by the likes of his exponentially versatile cohort Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant, but few possess the run-stuffing and pass-rushing prowess that the future first-rounder has. A presence on any field that drastically alters the offensive game plan of any and every offensive coordinator attempting to scheme against him, his absence is something Notre Dame fans can feel confident in. The Tigers are still 13-point favorites, but the probability of seeing that number drop in the next couple of days is quite likely.
1. Lawrence is a Key Part of the 5th best rushing defense in the country.
The senior edge rusher who had his way with rushing schemes this year tallied over 7 TFL with a defense that, while being 3rd in the country, has allowed only 8 rushing touchdowns and a little over 1200 rushing yards. The Tigers have held opponents to an astounding 2.4 yards a carry, one of the nation’s best.
Surely, that should not worry Clemson fans as they are facing the 52nd-best rushing attack, but Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has to feel a little confidence in his backfield. Star Irish tailback Dexter Williams is looking to exploit the fissure in that defensive line now that Lawrence’s understudy, Myles Pickney, who has only accumulated 21 tackles on the year, has to fill in for the potential first-rounder.
2. Notre Dame QB Ian Book Will Have More Time In The Pocket.
Though edge-rushing cohort Christian Wilkins leads the team in sacks, not having Dexter Williams suit up means that Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book will have more time to survey the defense and get the ball to his core of wide receivers. The 390-pound mainstay of Clemson’s defensive line is one of the most disruptive edge-rushers in the country, earning First Team All-ACC honors for the second year in a row.
Alongside Christian Wilkins, the Clemson pass rush has been effective in keeping their offense on the field. 46 sacks, and only letting up an average of 183.8 passing yards a game against a top-40 passing offense this year may sound like numbers that may worsen without Lawrence on the field. Notre Dame’s offensive line has allowed 19 sacks on the year, and that number may not increase without the standout pass rusher on the field.
3. Clemson Cannot Afford A Shootout With Notre Dame’s Defense
If Clemson’s defense ends up having trouble with the Irish offense when Lawrence isn’t on the depth chart come Saturday, this could be an offensive showcase for Ian Book’s crew. Book has thrown north of 2,400 yards this year, and 19 touchdowns. As the third-best defense in the country that allows just over 270 yards a game, they would rather their offense composed by quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne Jr. to win the game for them. If this turns into a quarterback duel where both offenses get hot, Clemson’s pass rushers Wilkins and Bryant will have to carry the load for their suspended teammate.
In the event this turns into a shootout, Notre Dame’s surprisingly stifling defense, who sit at the 32nd spot in total defense, have had some great numbers on the year. They’ve gotten over 31 sacks on the year and have held opponents to just below 200 yards a game.
Not having Christian Wilkins’ complimentary pass rusher further pushes the risk of this becoming a 60-minute highlight reel. Not something Dabo Swinney wants.
Clemson and Notre Dame are set to kickoff for tomorrow afternoon’s Cotton Bowl on ESPN, 4 p.m. ET.