No. 3 Notre Dame title hopes snapped by dominant performance by No. 2 Clemson in Cotton Bowl

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This was supposed to be a different year with a different result compared to Notre Dame’s run to the BCS Championship Game in 2012. And although this year was different in many regards, from the team that was built through recruiting and player development, it will be nearly impossible to avoid the comparisons between how this season ended and how the 2012 season ended. No. 3 Notre Dame was no match for No. 2 Clemson, the champions of the ACC, in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. Clemson dominated the Fighting Irish, 30-3, to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against either No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Oklahoma.

Notre Dame’s perfect season came to an imperfect end against the Tigers, who used big plays from their blue-chip quarterback Trevor Lawrence to stud wide receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins against a banged-up Notre Dame defense. Notre Dame’s inability to get a video review to go their way and to get anything going on offense proved to be more catastrophic in this one, however.

In a game Notre Dame needed to play cleanly and without mistakes, two turnovers proved to be costly. Two turnovers led to 10 Clemson points, including the first points of the game on a long Clemson field goal in the first quarter. An interception in the second half thrown by Ian Book led to a quick Clemson touchdown when Travis Etienne took off up the middle for a 62-yard run. Notre Dame was snake-bitten by long touchdown plays against the Tigers. Lawrence completed two touchdown throws of 52 and 42 yards to Ross in a dominant second quarter that proved to be the most important quarter of the game. Clemson outscored the Irish 20-0 in the half, which was capped with a late touchdown pass from Lawrence to Higgins with just two seconds until halftime to give Clemson a dominating 23-3 lead at the break.

There was nothing more to be said in the second half as Clemson’s defense continued to control the game. Things were so comfortable for Clemson that head coach Dabo Swinney found an opportunity in the fourth quarter to take out his starters and play the second stringers knowing there would be one more game to be played for Clemson.

Notre Dame was held to just 88 rushing yards against a Clemson defense playing without Dexter Lawrence on the line, thus proving Clemson’s defensive line was still a strength. Ian Book completed just 17 of his 34 pass attempts for 160 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. Dexter Williams had 54 of those rushing yards for the Irish.

One thing Notre Dame’s defense wanted to do was put pressure on young quarterback sensation Trevor Lawrence. That did not go according to plan for the Irish. Lawrence completed 27 of 40 pass attempts for 327 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. There were a few moments of pride for the Irish in chasing down Lawrence on the move, but the talented big arm ability of Lawrence combined with a healthy stable of sure-handed receivers proved too much for Notre Dame, who at times were playing without Julian Love for an apparent head injury (Love did return to the game after halftime).

Lawrence’s big touchdown passes to Ross were big-time moments in the second quarter with the game slanting heavily in favor of Clemson, but it was Lawrence’s pass to Higgins in the back of the end zone that mail have been the nail in the coffin for the Irish just before halftime. On the play, it showed that even when Notre Dame could get a hand on breaking up the pass, things were just going to go Clemson’s way.

This game got away from Notre Dame in the second quarter, and it started with the Irish being stopped on a 4th-and-3 from the Clemson 34-yard line. With the game still tied 3-3 and Notre Dame stringing together a solid-looking drive, Ian Book’s pass intended for Miles Boykin was broken up by Isaiah Simmons for a turnover on downs. Who knows for sure how the drive would have ended had Notre Dame picked up the first down on the play, but happened after that seemed to be a sequence of events that would not play out in favor of the Irish.

Clemson took just three plays to get Trevor Lawrence to connect with Justyn Ross for a 52-yard touchdown. Notre Dame went three-and-out and gave up another long drive to the Tigers, although Notre Dame seemingly survived with a missed field goal try by the Tigers. But Notre Dame’s offense could not find anything to work with and punted after a short series, which was followed by another long touchdown pass from Lawrence to Ross. Another short offensive series by the Irish followed by a late touchdown pass from Lawrence to Tee Higgins gave Clemson a 23-3 lead at halftime after a dominant second quarter.

Would things have been different if that fourth-down pass from Book to Boykin was completed? We will just never know for sure.

Clemson rolled up 538 yards of total offense on Notre Dame. it was the first time since Nov. 4, 2017 Notre Dame allowed at least 500 yards in a game. Wake Forest had 587 yards of offense against the Irish in that game, a 48-37 victory for Notre Dame. It was the eighth time since the start of the 2015 season Notre Dame allowed 500 yards in a game. The last time Notre Dame allowed over 500 yards of offense in a bowl game was the 2012 season’s BCS National Championship Game against Alabama (529 yards).

First Quarter
8:35 – Clemson field goal. Greg Huegel, 40 yards. Clemson 3, Notre Dame 0 (9 plays, 31 yards, 3:15)
4:31 – Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon, 28 yards. Clemson 3, Notre Dame 3 (10 plays, 66 yards, 4:04)

Second Quarter
12:50 – Clemson touchdown. Trevor Lawrence pass to Justyn Ross, 52 yards. Greg Huegel PAT blocked. Clemson 9, Notre Dame 0 (3 plays, 65 yards, 1:04)
1:44 – Clemson touchdown. Trevor Lawrence pass to Justyn Ross, 42 yards. Greg Huegel PAT good. Clemson 16, Notre Dame 3 (8 plays, 85 yards, 3:12)
0:02 – Clemson touchdown. Trevor Lawrence pass to Tee Higgins, 19 yards. Greg Huegel PAT good. Clemson 23, Notre Dame 3 (4 plays, 80 yards, 0:46)

Third Quarter
2:04 – Clemson touchdown. Travis Etienne 62-yard run. Greg Huegel PAT good. Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3 (3 plays, 71 yards, 1:01)