The Rematch: Why Trevor Lawrence may give Clemson a leg up on the competition
It's easy to look at what Clemson freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei accomplished earlier this season at Notre Dame and come to the conclusion that the Tigers being without starter Trevor Lawrence didn’t make a difference.
Lawrence, the likely No. 1 overall pick of the next NFL draft, was on the sideline for the 47-40, two-overtime defeat Nov. 7 in South Bend, Indiana. He was still in protocol after testing positive for COVID-19.
The rematch in the ACC championship between No. 2-ranked Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0) and No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1) is set for 4 p.m. Saturday in Charlotte for a berth in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Uiagalelei had a remarkable night in that first meeting. There is no doubt about that. Making just the second start of his career, the 19-year-old heir apparent to Lawrence passed for 439 yards with two touchdowns as he guided the Tigers’ high-powered offense in a shootout.
Uiagalelei’s yardage was the third-most in school history, more than Lawrence has ever thrown in a game, and broke the team’s rookie record of now Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. It was the most against Notre Dame since 425 by former NFL quarterback Carson Palmer of Southern Cal in 2002.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Notre Dame’s defense committed to stopping the run, which it did. The Irish dared Uiagalelei to beat them through the air, which he almost did.
“D.J. was amazing, obviously,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said last week. “... D.J. can throw the ball with anybody. But, hopefully, Trevor will be able to just bring out the best of us in all aspects.”
Lawrence might not have taken back-to-back sacks as Uiagalelei did as Clemson began its possession of the second overtime, trailing by seven. But besides that, Lawrence brings a threat to run the ball on designed pass plays. At any point, he can flush the defenders out and take off.
Under normal circumstances, Uiagalelei would be able to do that as well. But he was dealing with a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a trip to Georgia Tech and barely see action in a blowout of Syracuse. With Lawrence out for the next game against Boston College following his positive coronavirus test, there was still lingering concern about Uiagalelei, although he led the Tigers to a comeback victory.
Uiagalelei was fine to fire passes all over the field against Notre Dame, but Clemson wasn’t going to take any unnecessary chances of his being tackled hard on a run play. Not with Lawrence unavailable. The Irish figured that out quickly.
“We were pretty limited. That’s not something we really put out there,” Swinney said a couple of days after the game. “... I’ll be honest with you. I was concerned about him going into the BC game, just his ability with his soreness and being able to make throws because he really couldn’t practice the week before.”
Clemson’s entire running attack, even with two-time ACC offensive player of the year Travis Etienne, was no help. The Tigers had 34 yards on 33 carries. Etienne ran 18 times for 28 yards. Uiagalelei had 13 attempts, including sacks, for 2 yards.
“It didn’t go how we wanted it to,” Lawrence said. “In the run game, we could have done some things better, obviously. Anyone can see that.”
Lawrence has run for six touchdowns this season and they’re not just sneaks at the goal line. In Clemson’s regular-season finale at Virginia Tech, he had a 17-yard touchdown and then a 7-yarder to give him 16 in his three years, fifth-best in Clemson history for quarterbacks.
Last season, Lawrence rushed for 563 yards (5.5 per attempt) and nine touchdowns. He had a 67-yarder in the national semifinals victory against Ohio State. Coming into this season, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the best rushing quarterback in the country. He already was the best passer.
“He’s just a veteran guy,” Swinney said. “He’s a guy who’s won 33 games (and lost one, last season’s national championship against LSU) as a starting quarterback. I think his overall experience and overall knowledge is at a little bit of a different level, as it should be, from a guy making his first-ever road start and second career start as a freshman. You can’t coach that. You have to put in the work to get to that point.”
Lawrence said he is looking forward to playing in the ACC championship for a third straight time (sixth consecutive for the team with five titles so far) not so much to get his shot at Notre Dame but to help Clemson reach the national semifinals again.
“When we go back to Charlotte, it shows that we’re where we want to be, still in control of our destiny,” he said. “All the goals we have are still in front of us.”