SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ask Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher a question and you will get a straight answer.

So what does he think of the defensive front four the Fighting Irish will face Dec. 29 at the Cotton Bowl in the playoff semifinal against Clemson?

“They’re athletic, they’re big, they’re physical and they’re nasty,” Mustipher said.

And he’s right, of course. Defensive ends Clelin Ferrell (6-4, 265 pounds) and Austin Bryant (6-6, 280) and tackles Christian Wilkins (6-4, 315) and Dexter Lawrence (6-4, 350) are regarded as the best in the country as a unit, and how Notre Dame deals with them will go a long way in determining which team reaches the national championship game on Jan. 7.

Clemson’s fearsome foursome has accounted for 176 tackles, 48.5 tackles for loss, 23 sacks and 49 quarterback pressures on a defense ranked No. 3 against the rush (93.0 yards allowed per game), No. 4 in total defense (276.8 ypg), No. 2 in scoring defense (13.7 ppg) and No. 3 in sacks (3.46 per game).

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long has been watching video of the Tigers’ 13-0 season that includes a 42-10 ACC title game win over a Pittsburgh team that Notre Dame beat 19-14 in South Bend.

“I don’t want to give you my first impression,” Long said with a slight chuckle. “They are awfully good.”

Experienced, too. It will be Notre Dame’s first foray into the playoff, but it’s the fourth straight year Dabo Swinney’s team has qualified. Coach Brian Kelly also noted the skills across Clemson’s defensive front.

“They have them across the board: Long, athletic edge players, inside two-gap players with quickness,” he said. “So you can’t pick a particular guy and say, we’re going to run at him or we’re going to run away from him or we’re going to slide the protection to him. …. If there’s a one-on-one across the board, they are all problems. That’s what makes it difficult.”

Clemson players are calling the Irish offense a tough challenge.

“They have a great offensive line, probably the best offensive line that we’ve played this year,” Bryant said. “They have a really good quarterback, he’s a baller. He can run and he can throw. He can scramble to run or scramble to throw, keeps his eyes downfield. They’ll spread you out and then bring it back in and try and run it right at you with those great running backs.”

The Irish are averaging 456.1 yards per game, including 190.5 yards on the ground, led by Dexter Williams. They’ve surrendered just 1.6 sacks per game, and Ian Book has completed more than 70 percent of his passes.


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