February 09, 2015

(AP) - Sixth-ranked Notre Dame faces a lot of unanswered questions through four games.

The Fighting Irish (4-0) have won two straight starts by quarterback DeShone Kizer, and he rallied Notre Dame with 12 seconds left to beat Virginia three weeks ago. But how will the sophomore react to a raucous crowd in his first road start at No. 12 Clemson?

Will the Irish defense, which seems to alternate between dominant and susceptible to big plays, find a way to play consistently well? Will the secondary continue to be burned by gadget plays?

But the biggest question facing the Irish: Just how good are they? It's hard to say. Notre Dame's victories have come against opponents with combined records of 4-11.

A 30-22 victory against then-No. 14 Georgia Tech two weeks ago doesn't look quite as impressive after the Yellow Jackets were beaten 34-20 by Duke on Saturday. Notre Dame heads into Clemson looking for its biggest road win since a 30-13 victory at Oklahoma in 2012 solidified its position as a national championship contender.

Coach Brian Kelly said at his weekly news conference Tuesday that what he is most confident about is team chemistry.

''It's a close team. They'll play hard for each other. There's no quit in them. They'll overcome adversity,'' he said.

The Irish already have overcome adversity with six players out with season-ending injuries, including quarterback Malik Zaire and running back Tarean Folston. Kizer at quarterback and C.J. Prosise at running back have done well replacing them. Prosise has rushed for 600 yards - the most ever by an Irish back in the first four games of a season. But both lack experience at their positions.

''We're still learning about the players that have had to come in and step in after these injuries,'' Kelly said.

Too often the past few seasons, Clemson has seen its chances for bigger things halted in marquee games. It happened in 2011 when the 8-0 Tigers were routed by Georgia Tech, 31-17. Then again two years later when 6-0 Clemson was run out of Death Valley by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and Florida State, 51-14.

Along with a November date against the Seminoles, Saturday's visit from the Irish figures to be Clemson's biggest opportunity to paint itself as a playoff contender.

''I've been around since probably my (high school) freshman year,'' Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson said. ''From what I've been seeing, we've never kind of had that respect or gotten over that hump. I really don't care about the polls. We're going to do what we've got to do.''

It figures to be another mega-watt week on Clemson's campus. ESPN College GameDay will broadcast from the school for the first time since the Florida State defeat in 2013. Tickets are nearly impossible to get yet requests continue to pour in.

Clemson was the preseason pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title with Watson the favorite for player of the year. While Tigers are 3-0 for the fourth time in five years, the showing so far has left many questions with unsatisfying or incomplete answers.

Clemson's defense is ranked ninth nationally in allowing 260.7 yards a game - same as a year ago when it led the country - but has not yet been truly tested in wins over FCS opponent Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville.

The Tigers' 1,000-yard receiver Mike Williams broke a bone in his neck in the season's first quarter and hasn't played since, robbing Watson of his primary deep threat. The result is many of Watson's completions have been short tosses as opponents take away the long ball.

But co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott thinks the drama will bring out Watson's best.

''He came to Clemson to compete against the biggest programs on the biggest stage,'' he said. ''I'm pretty sure he'll be excited and ready.''

Notre Dame comes in off a 62-27 win over Massachusetts. The contest was another game where Kizer and Prosise could grow and help the rest of the offense readjust instead of focusing on the Irish's numerous injuries.

''As long as the entire team knows that each player is valued for who they are, there's initial disappointment, but you don't lose morale,'' Kelly said.

Clemson safety Jayron Kearse said Notre Dame's receivers, particularly Will Fuller, have been a bit mouthy this week, trash-Tweeting on social media. The Tigers, Kearse said, are ready to shut down the Irish.

''They obviously don't know what we do down here in Death Valley,'' Kearse said.

What they don't know is how they will do on the road. The Irish had lost five straight road games until Kizer threw a 39-yard TD pass to Fuller with 12 seconds left to give Notre Dame a 34-27 victory at Virginia three weeks ago.

The Irish are 2-5 under Kelly on the road against ranked teams, with both wins coming in 2012 at No. 10 Michigan State and No. 8 Oklahoma. Clemson is 41-6 at home in seven seasons under coach Dabo Swinney and have won 11 straight.

Kelly said he expects the Irish to respond like they did last season when they nearly upset No. 2 Florida State, losing on a controversial pass interference call that cost them a touchdown with 13 seconds left.

''I think we'll have a lot of carry over,'' Kelly said. ''We'll talk in terms of the same kind of environment ... in terms of how we'll need to prepare.''

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