Notre Dame walked into Memorial Stadium saying they weren’t worried about Hurricane Joaquin. But they sure should have been more worried about the Clemson Tigers.
The Irish may have lost when DeShone Kizer’s version of student-body right failed to convert a two-point conversion that would’ve forced overtime. But Notre Dame was beat in the game’s opening minutes, knocked woozy by two quick Clemson scores and a shocking lack of poise by all phases of the game.
In more than difficult conditions, the Irish struggled on offense, defense, and special teams, each digging a hole that turned out to be insurmountable. While the Irish never stopped fighting, Kizer’s failed two-point attempt was a fitting finish to an evening not soon forgotten in upstate South Carolina.
The Irish had their shot to steal back this victory. But instead, it was another devastating road loss that breaks an unbeaten season. With monsoon-like rains falling and the Death Valley crowd rocking, the Tigers suffocated the Irish for three quarters, but had to hold on for dear life as the Irish mounted a furious comeback, made even more miraculous considering the mistakes Notre Dame made.
As the Irish try to find a way home to South Bend amidst a tropical storm, Notre Dame leaves as a 4-1 team, battered and bruised. While they should be proud of the fight they put up at the end, they’ll likely spend the next few days wondering how a veteran and confident team failed to answer the opening bell.
Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss to Clemson.
Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out after a completely horrific start.
You can draw up the perfect start to a football game. Or you can take that game-plan, rip it to pieces, douse it with lighter fluid and set it on fire. Unfortunately, Notre Dame chose Option B on Saturday night.
For the first four games of the season, the Irish have gotten off to fast starts and followed a winning script. They’ve outscored opponents 47-6, giving up just one score, a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter against UMass.
But Saturday evening, the Irish dug themselves a deep hole from the start. They gave up a nice kickoff return to open the game. Deshaun Watson caught the Irish defense out of alignment on a run that went for 38 yards. A Cole Luke missed tackle allowed the Tigers to convert a 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. Three plays later, Clemson was winning 7-0.
Offensively, the Irish started miserably. Two predictable runs went backwards, the front five blown off the line en route to a three-and-out. A shanked punt by Tyler Newsome set up the Tigers on a short field and four plays later Clemson had a 14-point lead.
Brian Kelly said multiple times that his team needed to start quickly, not giving the Death Valley crowd any reason to make things even more difficult for the Irish. Well Notre Dame did the opposite and those early 14 points sure proved critical considering the Tigers only scored 10 more the rest of the night.
The Irish tried to put the game on the backs of their offensive line. It didn’t work.
For the first four games of the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line was the engine that powered the Irish attack. With Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston out of the starting lineup, the Irish offense didn’t miss a beat, with Harry Hiestand’s gang creating huge running lanes for C.J. Prosise and plenty of time to throw for DeShone Kizer.
But it didn’t take long to see that things were very different on Saturday evening, with Clemson turning the Irish one-dimensional as an offense and completely shutting down the ground game. Prosise was held to just three rushing yards in the first half. The rebuilt Clemson front-four was swarming, collecting nine TFLs against the Irish, with defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd combining for a ridiculous seven stops behind the line of scrimmage.
While the Irish offense rallied, mostly via the pass and checking down to underneath crossing routes, Notre Dame just couldn’t win the battle at the line of scrimmage. And after the game, when head coach Brian Kelly discussed the controversial two-point play call, he said there were both run and pass options in the call.
Kizer thought he had numbers in his favor up front, and he counted on his offensive line to get a push and help him bring the game into overtime. Instead the Tigers shut down another run and Notre Dame’s comeback was finished.
Notre Dame’s wide receivers came into the game talking a big game. They left it with some questions to answer.
Clemson’s team made a mountain from a molehill this week, turning tweets by Chris Brown and Will Fuller into a rallying cry. So whether or not you understand what’s so inflammatory about tweeting #savage, it was up to Brown and Fuller—not to mention the entire receiving corps—to back up their words.
On one of the wettest nights you’ll ever see a game played, only one team was plagued by the drops. Will Fuller let a huge gain slide through his hands, a critical first-half drop. Torii Hunter Jr., too.
Corey Robinson could’ve reeled in a game-changing touchdown catch late in the first half, but he dropped it when he hit the ground. And after causing DeShone Kizer to waste a much-needed second half timeout when he wasn’t on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, Robinson could bring in Kizer’s high throw, either. Another pass, just sliding through an Irish receivers’ hands.
Brown broke loose for 83 yards, the most for any receiver in the game. But the South Carolina native fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter, jarred loose by safety Jayron Kearse (who also took offense to the tweets) with a little more than two minutes to play. While the Irish managed to get the ball back and score to have a chance to send the game to overtime, that’s the second time Brown has gotten to the shadow of the goal line and coughed it up, matching his back-breaking fumble against Northwestern last season.
Fuller’s absence was probably the most disappointing. Spending a lot of the evening going against Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Fuller only managed to catch two passes for 37 yards, his 23-yard big play coming on a screen pass. Alexander talked a big game this week and backed it up on the field.
The conditions were terrible. But big-time players make big plays in big games. And the Irish receiving corps just couldn’t do it.
After a terrible start, Notre Dame’s defense held its ground… and made enough big plays to keep the Irish in the game.
Lost in the disappointment of the evening was a solid performance by Brian VanGorder’s defense. No, you can’t throw away the first two series of the game. But after settling in against the Tigers impressive array of skill talent, Notre Dame’s defense did everything it could to will the team back into the game, nearly pulling off the comeback.
Deshaun Watson was held to under 100 passing yards, completing just 50 percent of his passes. The Tigers ground game didn’t have a 100 yard rusher. The entire offense was limited to just 296 yards.
And after Notre Dame exited halftime and turning over the football on their first touch of the half and then followed it up by doing it again on their first play from scrimmage, it’s a credit to this defense that the Irish weren’t buried by the middle of the third quarter.
Notre Dame forced six three-and-outs tonight when Clemson only forced two. And while I wondered aloud on Twitter when the last time a VanGorder defense came up with a big, game-changing play, Cole Luke pulled in an interception in the end zone, essentially triggering Notre Dame’s rally.
Junior safety Max Redfield led the Irish with 14 tackles, including 11 solo stops. Jaylon Smith was productive while Isaac Rochell (seven stops) and Sheldon Day (two more TFLs) were disruptive in the trenches.
While there were missed opportunities and some breakdowns that’ll likely haunt this team, it’s tough to pin this loss on the defense.
There’s no such thing as a moral victory for this team. So we’ll see if the veteran leadership on this roster can stop this loss from being a season-ruiner.
That the Irish even had a chance to pull even in the game’s final seconds is rather amazing. If you look at the root causes for losing in college football, Notre Dame’s game was littered with them.
Four turnovers, all but cementing Notre Dame’s fate. A dreadfully slow start. A run game that was stuck in neutral and a receiving corps that dropped a half-dozen easy catches.
So while the Irish managed to storm back and have a shot at victory in the end, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to take any type of glass-half-full approach in the immediate aftermath.
“We’re not here for moral victories. We’re too far along in our program,” Kelly said.
But that’s not to say the season is lost.
Last year, Notre Dame went down to Tallahassee and nearly pulled off a season-defining victory. Instead, a controversial pass interference call turned a comeback win into a gutting loss. And the Irish never recovered.
Notre Dame absolutely can’t let a loss to Clemson derail their season. And after an offseason spent hammering leadership, resilience and and fortifying the attitude of his roster, it’ll be up to Kelly and his five captains to make sure this loss doesn’t sink the season.
Navy arrives in South Bend undefeated next weekend, coming off an impressive 22-point win over Air Force. A week later, USC arrives, with memories of an Irish curb-stomping in the Coliseum still fresh in their minds last November.
The Irish have managed to fight through six season-ending injuries. After doing just as much to beat themselves Saturday night as Clemson did, it’s up to the veteran leadership of this team to make sure they’re able to rally the troops and get this season back on track.
There is still so much football to be played. And with a Top 25 that looks as jumbled as ever, all the Irish can control is their own fate.
So save the oxygen, it’s not time to debate whether or not a one-loss Notre Dame team will make the playoff. It’s time for this team to prove they can dust themselves off and get back to winning. Everything else will take care of itself.