SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After this week, a little extra waiting was only fitting. For that matter, so was the incumbent failing to hold on through the entire process despite a lead near the expected closing bell. And to risk drawing out the obvious analogy one step too far, of course the closing moments of Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime victory against No. 1 Clemson included extensive, unnecessary reviews.
If someone who knew nothing about football had tuned into NBC on Saturday night expecting to see a long-anticipated speech, just speaking hypothetically, and instead saw this instant classic, the first half would have left them thinking the Irish (7-0, 6-0 ACC) were the team on a 36-game regular-season winning streak. But the game did not end when sophomore running back Kyren Williams ran 65 yards on the first official snap for a touchdown, it did not pause when the NBC broadcast pivoted for 30 minutes to President-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech, and it did not end when Notre Dame entered halftime with a 23-13 lead. Instead, each development was over-scrutinized as the game grew closer and closer and eventually into a literal tie.
“Watching our team handle themselves in the fourth quarter, handling themselves when there was adversity, as a coach, those are special moments,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said on what had become Sunday. “We won the football game and I’m certainly excited about that, but more so, when you watch your players exhibit resolve and exhibit grit and refuse to lose a football game against the No. 1 team in the country … that’s the special part about coaching these guys at Notre Dame.”
Williams finished with 140 yards and three touchdowns, including a three-yard score in each overtime, on 23 carries, but even with his strong, and increasingly expected, showing, Notre Dame could not find a consistent offense, scoring offensively on that first play and then not again until mounting a last-minute touchdown drive to force overtime. That 59-minute lull allowed the Tigers (7-1, 6-1) a methodical second-half push.
Such calm and patience should be expected from a team that has appeared in the last five College Football Playoffs, winning two of them. While senior running back Travis Etienne was largely held in check, freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei picked up the slack, throwing for an Irish-opponent record 439 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-44 passing, his first big moment in a road game coming on a 53-yard scoring strike to Cornell Powell to bounce Clemson out of a 10-0 hole in the first quarter. A Notre Dame field goal later and the broadcast continued on the USA Network while Biden spoke. By the time viewers returned, halftime had arrived, and the Irish were comfortable with a 23-13 lead.
But Uiagalelei remained poised in the second half, directing four scoring drives and illustrating just how rich the Tigers are at quarterback.
“I would like to have [Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s] problems with those (Uiagalelei and Tigers star Trevor Lawrence, sidelined by the coronavirus),” Kelly said. “[Uiagalelei] is outstanding. His ability to throw the football is pretty special. If we played them again, we would have to do some things a little bit differently because he is so explosive as a quarterback.”
It took until 3:33 remained, but an Etienne touchdown run finally staked Clemson to a lead. Given Notre Dame had trailed for merely 19:47 through six games, the deficit was somewhat unfamiliar territory, and it showed on the next drive. The Irish gained 28 yards on six plays in a seemingly do-or-die moment. When Kelly spoke about adversity, he failed to mention this misstep, though it in turn created more adversity to play through.
The Tigers gifted Notre Dame life with a mishandled and fundamentally-flawed three-and-out that took just 22 seconds off the clock, and then it was time for Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book to demonstrate something that is becoming commonplace for him: a clutch drive. 91 yards in 92 seconds later, highlighted by a 53-yard completion to senior receiver Avery Davis and then a 4-yard scoring pass to him, and more time scrutinizing the Irish and the orange was needed.
“I know from playing (quarterback in) high school a smidge of the hate and criticism that the quarterback position gets, but [Book] handles it so greatly,” Davis said. “Just to see him go out there and perform like that, it was amazing.”
Williams took over again in overtime as he had at the outset, putting his head down and refusing to be stopped short of the goal line, no matter how many reviews of reviews — some seemingly sparked by a shouting maskless man — cast unnecessary doubt on the inevitable. And then Uiagalelei cracked, finally, in the second overtime, absorbing sacks on consecutive snaps to start Clemson’s possession down a touchdown.
By the time Irish fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes dismounted the Tigers behemoth quarterback to force a 3rd-and-24, the writing was on the wall.
“Just watching the defense do what they did, sitting on the sideline knowing that they were going to stop them,” Book said after throwing for 310 yards and a touchdown on 22-of-39 passing while adding 75 rushing yards on 12 carries. “It was unbelievable. Started screaming, ran out there, threw my helmet. It’s just a night I’m never going to forget.”
Indeed, as sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford broke up the third-down pass and Notre Dame responsibly defended Clemson’s pitchy-pitchy-woo-woo attempt on fourth, the only remaining question was if the 11,011 in the stands would storm the field during a global pandemic.
Yes, the masses joined together and celebrated when the incumbent was knocked off. Undoubtedly a dubious decision, it was also a natural release after years of wondering if this moment would come again.
STAT OF THE NIGHT
Etienne is arguably the most dynamic offensive player in the country. He would have been no lower than a second-round draft pick last spring, and he makes that draft grade look more and more foolish each week. Yet, the Irish held the senior running back to 95 yards on 26 offensive touches, a 3.65 yards per moment average. That was not by chance; he was Notre Dame’s first, second and third defensive focus.
“We just tried to contain him,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “He was everywhere on the field. We tried to fill gaps. We tried to at least blitz the gaps when we had to face him. … It was just a matter of we had to go full-speed every single time and be able to meet him in the backfield, not let him get going.”
The Tigers may have scored 40 total points, including 20 in the second half — notable since before Saturday, the Irish defense had held opponents to single digits in 11 of 12 halves this season — but keeping Etienne in check qualified it all as a success. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea did so without mortgaging the rest of the defensive approach, and thus allowed the Irish to bide their time for 59 minutes. Lea also did so without burning out his defense, allowing it to have enough energy for the sack-to-sack burst to end the game.
“He always implements this system of head-body, head-body mindset, which is just a mindset that you’re always down, even if we’re up,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Just have a mindset of make a good play, but after that, it’s reset, focus again for the next play.”
That focus held Etienne to a subpar night, and led to Uiagalelei’s final possession totaling two sacks for a loss of 14 yards, an incompletion and a fourth-and-the-game checkdown.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Owusu-Koramoah is increasingly known for his big hits. He was sizing Etienne up for one in the second quarter, while the game was airing on only the USA Network, when instead, Etienne essentially gave Owusu-Koramoah the ball on a pitch play.
“It was a play where I had seen it many times on film,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Shaun Crawford was also alerting me, we were talking to each other. We knew the play was coming, just wanted to go ahead and go, but the ball popped out.”
It landed in Owusu-Koramoah’s breadbasket. By the time he had taken two strides, he was past Etienne. The end zone awaited, Notre Dame’s only touchdown between the first and last minutes of regulation.
TREND OF THE NIGHT
If once is an incidence, twice a coincidence and three times a pattern, then what is five in a row? No, Notre Dame has not won its last five home games against No. 1 teams, but they have all been games no one who watched will forget, even that hypothetical football-ignorant viewer. They have been settled by a combined 21 points and featured three overtimes.
1988: No. 4 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Miami 30
1993: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24
2000: No. 1 Nebraska 27, No. 23 Notre Dame 24 (overtime)
2005: No. 1 USC 34, No. 9 Notre Dame 31
2020: No. 4 Notre Dame 47, No. 1 Clemson 40 (double overtime)
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Be careful out there. … You can use any of the open aisles, please. … If you stay too long, it’ll be last call somewhere.” — The Notre Dame Stadium public address announcer pleading with the students to disperse from the field in the 10 minutes after the game.
We all need a release. I don't like it. But I get it. pic.twitter.com/znZ4lS4GIf
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 8, 2020
UNDERRATED MOMENT OF THE GAME
Senior kicker Jonathan Doerer kept the Irish in the contest for much of the offensive lull, knocking in four field goals, but he also missed a potential school-record 57-yarder just before halftime. Etienne caught the short attempt, and began a harrowing attempt at a Clemson kick-six.
Just before he broke into the open field, Notre Dame punter/holder Jay Bramblett, all 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds of him, tackled Etienne, carrying 205 pounds of muscle on a 5-foot-10 frame.
Travis Etienne was ONE punter away from returning this kick😅
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 8, 2020
If Bramblett does not make that tackle, Etienne scores, the Tigers pull within 23-20 at halftime, have all the momentum and receive the second-half opening kickoff. That sequence of events would have been too much for a 59-minute offensive lull to survive.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Williams scored three times. Owusu-Koramoah scored, forced two fumbles and had a game-high nine tackles with half a sack and two tackles for loss. But neither responded from a blown scoring chance — fumbling at the 2-yard line — with a last-minute touchdown drive against a top-flight defense.
He never quit, when things got tough he kept fighting.
Game ball goes to @Ian_Book12. #GraduatingChampions pic.twitter.com/XPQSKJS6RX
— Brian Kelly (@CoachBrianKelly) November 8, 2020
“That’s Ian. That’s what he does,” Williams said. “Big game, big stage, he’s there. He’s going to make those plays. We trust him all night. He never let us down on offense. He was the one who kept us going, kept us alive. We trusted him a whole lot tonight. That’s our quarterback for a reason.”
14:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 65-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Clemson 0. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:33)
5:55 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 24 yards. Notre Dame 10, Clemson 0. (10 plays, 49 yards, 6:24)
4:11 — Clemson touchdown. Cornell Powell 53-yard pass from D.J. Uiagalelei. B.T. Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Clemson 7. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:44)
13:09 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 27 yards. Notre Dame 13, Clemson 7. (13 plays, 66 yards, 6:02)
8:32 — Clemson field goal. Potter 25 yards. Notre Dame 13, Clemson 10. (11 plays, 80 yards, 4:32)
5:53 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah 23-yard fumble return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 20, Clemson 10.
2:41 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 45 yards. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 10. (4 plays, -2 yards, 2:25)
1:09 — Clemson field goal. Potter 45 yards. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 13. (6 plays, 47 yards, 1:32)
12:15 — Clemson field goal. Potter 46 yards. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 16. (9 plays, 36 yards, 2:45)
4:12 — Clemson touchdown. Davis Allen 10-yard pass from Uiagalelei. Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 23. (13 plays, 60 yards, 6:29)
11:37 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 44 yards. Notre Dame 26, Clemson 23. (7 plays, 31 yards, 3:12)
9:42 — Clemson field goal. Potter 30 yards. Notre Dame 26, Clemson 26. (5 plays, 58 yards, 1:49)
3:33 — Clemson touchdown. Travis Etienne 3-yard rush. Potter PAT good. Clemson 33, Notre Dame 26. (12 plays, 74 yards, 5:41)
0:22 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 4-yard pass from Ian Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 33, Clemson 33. (8 plays, 91 yards, 1:26)
Clemson touchdown. Uiagalelei 1-yard rush. Potter PAT good. Clemson 40, Notre Dame 33. (2 plays, 25 yards)
Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Clemson 40, Notre Dame 40. (4 plays, 25 yards)
Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 47, Clemson 40. (7 plays, 25 yards)
Brian Kelly predicted the fans would storm the field during #NotreDame's walk-through this afternoon.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 8, 2020