SOUTH BEND — While No. 1 Clemson may be without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence against No. 4 Notre Dame on Saturday night, it will still have one of the most dynamic players in college football coming out of the backfield.
Senior running back Travis Etienne has been a problem for most teams he’s faced during his career with the Tigers, and he’ll be someone Notre Dame will have to contain if they want to win Saturday’s top-five showdown in South Bend.
“I think he’s the best running back in the country, first of all — I’ll go on record of saying that,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly of Etienne. “Elite speed, tough inside-out runner, incredible out of the backfield; he’s the complete package. When you’re looking up ‘complete running back’ in the dictionary, his picture and name should be there because that’s who he is. I don’t know if there’s a back that we’ve gone against — and there’s been some great backs — that’s as complete of a player as he is.”
Etienne has put together a tremendous career so far at Clemson. Through three-plus seasons, he’s rushed for 4,644 yards and 65 touchdowns. He’s been able to accomplish that despite averaging less than 13 carries a game in his career.
He hasn’t been asked to run as much because of the ascendance of Lawrence as a quarterback. When Lawrence has been out, though, the Tigers have relied on Etienne more. In a 2018 game against Syracuse, Lawrence left the game due to an injury and didn’t return. Chase Brice went in to play quarterback, and Etienne quickly took over the game. He finished the contest with 27 carries for 203 yards and three rushing touchdowns.
Etienne has only carried the ball 20-plus times in two games since then: 28 times in 2018 against South Carolina, and 20 times last week against Boston College. The Tigers had Lawrence healthy against South Carolina, but didn’t have him last week because of Lawrence’s positive COVID-19 test. True freshman D.J. Uiagalelei made the start instead, which allowed Etienne to get more carries.
“When you talk about Etienne, he’s a very elusive guy; a very fast guy,” Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “You want to contain him in the best possible way that you can, and that’ll be one of our focuses this week.”
Notre Dame faced off against Etienne in the 2018 College Football Playoff Semifinal and actually found success containing the then-sophomore. Etienne’s final stat line was 14 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown, but 62 of those yards came on the touchdown run late in the third quarter. If you take away that play, Etienne totaled 13 attempts for just 47 yards.
One skill that Etienne has developed more since that game, though, is his receiving ability. After totaling 17 receptions in his first two seasons combined, Etienne had 37 receptions in 2019 and already has 29 through seven games this year. He eclipsed 1,000 career receiving yards last week against Boston College, making him the 12th player in FBS history to accumulate 4,000-plus rushing and 1,000-plus receiving yards in a career.
The dual-threat capability of Etienne is something Owusu-Koramoah knows his team will have to respect during Saturday’s game.
“He’s a fast guy,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “He’s like a rover on offense: he’s all over the place. I think we were watching film (Monday) and we saw him out there as the No. 1 wide receiver running a go-route. So, he’s all over the place and we want to contain him. … He’s ready to attack, but we’re also ready to attack as well. We’ll see what plays out.”