Comparing Notre Dame’s 30-3 loss in Saturday’s Cotton Bowl to Clemson with the 42-14 Irish defeat to Alabama in the national championship game six years ago makes sense. On the biggest stage, a 12-0 Notre Dame team was uncompetitive, barely able to move the ball, unable to stop its counterpart from doing so.
As much as those similarities focus on the one-step short aftertaste of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s two greatest seasons, they have something else in common: the dominance of the opponent. Notre Dame just does not have the ability to restock on the fly like Clemson and Alabama do. More and more it seems, no one in the country does.
The parallel Saturday was obvious: When the Tigers lost defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence to a positive drug test, they plugged in another presumptive NFL draft pick. When the Irish lost consensus first-team All-American cornerback Julian Love as he went through the concussion protocol, they turned to an inconsistent junior who will now be forever remembered for all the wrong reasons. Clemson did not pick on Donte Vaughn on his very first snap — it just felt that way — but Tigers freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence went after him for two touchdowns and exposed coverage helping Vaughn for another. A 3-3 tie became a 23-3 halftime reality. Notre Dame, meanwhile, ran into Clemson defensive tackle Albert Huggins repeatedly, gaining 114 yards on 29 carries (adjusting for six sacks for 26 yards), a 3.93 average.
“We have to be good enough that we can overcome the loss of one player,” Kelly said. “Clemson was able to overcome the loss of a great defensive lineman. We have to be able to overcome the loss of a really good player, and that’s the bottom line.
“When you’re in this game, you’ve got to be able to overcome the loss of key players. And that means from a coaching standpoint and a playing standpoint. The players have got to make plays, and coaches have to put players in a position to make plays. That’s just being real. This is about coaching and players. In these games, when you lose key players, coaches have got to step up and players have got to step up.”
The simple truth veiled by that coach-speak is the Irish did not have a player capable of stepping up. Notre Dame needs everything to go right to put together an unbeaten regular season — just as most teams do — and then it needs another extra break to stand a chance against this current version of Clemson (or ‘Bama). The Irish needed Drue Tranquill, Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to all return for a final season. They needed junior quarterback Ian Book to operate with record-setting efficiency. They needed all of their best players to be healthy.
But in the biggest game of the year, they lost Love for one quarter, and it was one quarter too many. Back in September they lost another likely All-American when fifth-year left tackle Alex Bars tore his ACL. He alone may not have saved Notre Dame’s running game — one which saw senior Dexter Williams go nearly three quarters between carries for more than 10 yards — but Williams certainly would have had a better chance with Bars leading the way.
Notre Dame’s margin of error at this level of competition is too razor thin to survive any such setback. There was no coaching blunder, no singular folly, no lamentable moment to languish over for the next eight months. The Tigers were just that much better than the Irish in AT&T Stadium. Only one program can rival Clemson, the one that left a similar taste in Irish mouths six years ago. In that respect, college football fans should relish the matchup set for next Monday.
Between now and then, maybe Love decides to head to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. That may not come until after the title game; the deadline is Jan. 14. Notre Dame now hopes more than ever he, junior defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, and receivers senior Miles Boykin and junior Chase Claypool all return. They will give the 2019 roster a chance at reaching this level again. They will create a margin of error again, if still a slim one.
Love, for his part, somewhat sounded like returning may be a genuine possibility for him, even though he would almost certainly be drafted no lower than the second round.
“I think there’s more to come next year,” he said. “I want this year to be remembered for our seniors. They started this. Two years ago, we were in horrible, we were feeling horrible for a different reason, because we didn’t get a shot. This year, obviously, is different. We got our shot, but we’re going to build on it, and you’ll see us back here for sure.”
That was in response to a generic post-game question, not about the draft specifically.
Whether or not Love returns, if the Irish reach the Playoff again in 2019, they will still need everything to go their way to match up with Clemson or Alabama. Every review will need to break Notre Dame’s way. No injury can befall a starter. No underthrown ball can lead to an incompletion instead of a Boykin touchdown.
That may be more a reflection of Clemson and Alabama than it is an indictment of Notre Dame.