Nov 14, 2014, 11:54 AM EDT
Having endured a grueling schedule that featured a whopping nine teams currently ranked among the nation’s top 25, No. 2 Notre Dame is set to face its tenth when it meets No. 14 Clemson tonight in the ACC semifinals.
Both programs fell in the semifinal round of last year’s conference tournament – Notre Dame to Virginia, and Clemson to Maryland. Irish head coach Bobby Clark knows that the game will be anything but easy with so much at stake.
“They’re possibly one of the best, if not the best, team we played last year, and they’ve returned a lot of players,” Clark said. “They’ll give us problems. They’re good at set pieces. They’re just a talented, tough, good all-around ACC team.”
“Now, can we beat them? Of course. If we play properly, we shouldn’t fear any team in our conference. I don’t think there’s any danger of not coming to play. We know we’re playing in a semifinal. We also know the quality of team that Clemson is. I think it’ll take care of itself.”
Akin to Notre Dame, Clemson gets offensive production from a wide array of sources. Fourteen different Tigers have scored this season, led by sophomore Austen Burkinel’s five tallies.
Notre Dame has gotten goals from eleven different players, but its offensive firepower is a bit more top-heavy than Clemson’s. Junior midfielder Patrick Hodan has knocked in nine goals, graduate student Leon Brown has scored six, and junior midfielder Evan Panken has tallied four. No other member of the Irish has more than two.
Notre Dame’s attack appears to be rounding into form at just the right time. The Irish have scored seven goals in their last two contests, their highest total in consecutive games this season. Brown scored three of those goals, and Hodan added two.
After struggling mightily with capitalizing on chances for most of the year, Notre Dame seems to have cured this problem with the simplest of remedies: practice.
“The trouble is, when you’re playing two games a week, it’s sometimes hard to get good finishing sessions in, because you just don’t get enough time,” Clark said. “It’s just such a busy time. So it was nice, last week we had two days where we actually spent a lot of time just working on finishing.”
Clark believes his club is well-equipped to continue its recent solid play in tonight’s tilt.
“We’ll be very excited,” Clark said. “Our schedule prepares us well for this. Our schedule is such that it’s a big game every game, pretty much. When you get used to playing in big games, you know how to get yourself up and ready for them.”
“It’s a funny thing – if you don’t play big games and you suddenly play a big game, then the occasion can be too big for you. But then again if you play big games every week, then you know it’s a big game so you get up for it, but there’s still calmness within the group. That’s important. Sir Alex Ferguson said you play the game, and not the occasion. I think we’re getting good at that. You get used to playing in occasions, so although we’ll be excited about playing in an ACC semifinal, we’ll still be focused and calm enough to play our game.”
The winner will advance to the finals on Sunday and face the winner of Louisville-Syracuse, a match that will immediately follow Notre Dame-Clemson.
The Irish and Tigers are slated to kick off at 5:30 PM at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. The match will be streamed live on ESPN3.
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