Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s time ‘on the brink’ will end, win or lose, against Clemson

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Notre Dame has awaited No. 1 Clemson all season, but this test has been coming for far longer. This wait traces back through last season’s one-possession loss at Georgia. It paused for a quarter against the Tigers in the 2018 College Football Playoff. This challenge escalated at Hard Rock Stadium in 2017, where the path to Saturday actually began, eight long years ago.

Of course, that references when the Irish were embarrassed in the national championship game against Alabama, 42-14. Notre Dame did not belong on the same field as the Tide that Monday evening, and anyone watching knew it.

The Irish hoped to have changed that when they returned to Miami five years later, but the Hurricanes’ speed on both sides of the ball underscored how far Notre Dame still remained from the country’s top in 2017. Irish head coach Brian Kelly tried to shoulder the onus for that 41-8 collapse, citing a failure to prepare his team for the atmosphere, but no preparations would have overcome the raw speed differential Miami enjoyed.

Then Notre Dame ran the table in 2018, only to fall 30-3 against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Yet, something changed, not just according to Kelly, but also per Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney.

“There was no doubt in my mind Notre Dame is good enough to beat us,” Swinney said two years ago. If Nick Saban had offered such praise in 2012, even college football’s grump would not have been able to keep a straight face through the sentence. “… Notre Dame is going to battle us every single time.”

Setting aside the possible foresight of that latter thought, it matched Kelly’s thoughts in that postgame. The margin of defeat was only one point better than the postseason embarrassment in 2012, but Kelly insisted the Irish belonged on the field against Clemson, acknowledging that was not the case years earlier.

“I left that (Alabama) game feeling like there was so much work to be done from the inside-out, so much development, so much recruiting,” he said following the Playoff semifinal. “This felt so much different, like we gave up four big plays that we characteristically don’t give up, and very capable of moving the football and doing the things necessary to beat this football team. …

“We can come back here and win. So it’s a real different feeling for me.”

Here can be a figurative location. Tallahassee in 2014 qualified, and in retrospect, so did Clemson in 2015. But here can also be transitive, the late-season self-destructions in each year illustrating Notre Dame was not yet here despite those instant-classic showings.

Heading to Athens last season qualified as here, and the Irish proved on the scoreboard they could compete with the best in the game, even if still coming up short. Lacking a dynamic runner, particularly with speedy receiver Braden Lenzy sidelined by a concussion, Notre Dame could not find the one big play it needed to beat Georgia, losing by six points at least conveying that shortcoming in a way 27 never seemed to.

“I don’t think there was a difference at all,” Irish safety Alohi Gilman said. “I think we can go hand-in-hand with anyone in the country, and I’m saying that in all seriousness.”

Chase Claypool concurred, notable considering he was the one player who nearly carried the Irish to a dramatic victory rather than the 23-17 loss.

“I honestly left that field thinking that we beat ourselves and not that we got beat by another team,” the receiver said.

“… We were one possession away, one play away from winning the game.”

These were not moral victories. No player or coach involved was ever satisfied with losing, not when they felt they were genuinely close. Perhaps if the roster had no business competing, a la 2012, a close loss would have mollified some of the anguish. Not in 2018, not in 2019.

And those losses have lingered. While the 2017 undressing in Miami may no longer resonate — the most significant statistical impact remaining from that comedy is Ian Book’s six pass attempts for three completions, 33 yards and one interception returned for a touchdown — the failures against Clemson and Georgia do. Notre Dame knew it had a chance to capitalize on an opportunity in each, but failed, be it courtesy of cataclysmic injury or lack of a playmaker. It failed.

Even those not playing knew it. Rather, they know it.

Current senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah watched the semifinal fall apart wearing pads on the sideline, knowing he had no chance of playing. He donned his jersey to feel more a part of the game, but a broken foot had already ended his season.

He went through the season with Claypool, Gilman, cornerback Julian Love. He felt their pain, their distress. Not to be dramatic, but Owusu-Koramoah still feels it now when he thinks of Clemson awaiting the Irish (7:30 ET; NBC).

“This is a journey,” he said Monday. “For the payback for those — back where I’m from, there’s a saying: If they have a problem with you, they have a problem with me. If you don’t like them, I don’t like them.

“It was kind of a brotherhood thing for me. You think about those guys that don’t get to play [Clemson] again. You carry that on your back, as well. You want to do it for them, as well.”

In Kelly’s decade of bringing Notre Dame back from the doldrums of Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis, his first chance at solidifying that task as a success was instead rendered a punchline. In many respects, both internally and externally, the Irish have been fighting off that Alabama loss since.

They first gained the respect of the best in the country in their 27-point loss to Clemson. Swinney said it. Kelly concurred.

“I feel like this football team is on the brink,” Kelly said 23 months ago.

By definition, brinks can’t last much longer than two years. If Notre Dame is going to prove it is no longer a 42-14 joke, a 41-8 party favor or a momentary mirage exposed as the season progresses, it needs to end a 36-game regular-season winning streak, an unhampered run of ACC dominance, and prove Swinney wrong.

Battling will not get the Irish over the brink. Only winning will.

Let’s get this out of the way now: No shine should come off a possible Notre Dame victory because it does not come against Trevor Lawrence, expected to be at the game but not cleared to play following his 10 days in isolation because of a positive coronavirus test. Yes, the presumptive No. 1 draft pick would make Saturday night’s task a bit more daunting, but Tigers freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has all the physical abilities desirable. If he were Clemson’s starter all season, this would still be a top-three program, just as it was in Lawrence’s freshman campaign that culminated in a national championship.

That is the tier the Irish have sought to join throughout Kelly’s 11 years, falling dramatically short twice in Miami, come closer in Dallas in 2018 and within reach at Georgia last September.

Lawrence or Uiagalelei, the Tigers represent that tier.

The only other statistical contributors remaining on Notre Dame’s roster from its faceplant on South Beach in 2017:

Kicker Jonathan Doerer: Two kickoffs.
Defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: Two tackles.
Defensive back Shaun Crawford: Two tackles.
Defensive end Daelin Hayes: One tackle.
Robert Hainsey and Tommy Kraemer split the workload at right tackle, while tight end Brock Wright and defensive tackle Kurt Hinish also saw brief action.