Clemson gets its revenge on Notre Dame, throws Playoff picture into chaos

ACC Championship - Clemson v Notre Dame
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Notre Dame’s Round II with Clemson was not a sequel to their November classic, but rather a remake of the original meeting in this era, the Tigers blowout in the 2018 Playoff semifinal. With the 34-10 loss on Saturday in the ACC title game, the No. 2 Irish may have jeopardized their return to the College Football Playoff.

Clemson star junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence was not the outright difference between the beatdown in Charlotte and the double-overtime thriller in South Bend six weeks ago, though he scored three early long touchdowns that set back Notre Dame (10-1, 9-1 ACC) in a way eerily reminiscent of that Cotton Bowl’s second-quarter surge. Rather, the real difference was the Tigers’ defense.

It held the Irish to 1.5 yards per rush, not just swarming sophomore running back Kyren Williams but also blowing right through the vaunted Notre Dame offensive line. That line had allowed only 17 sacks through 10 games this season, until Clemson (10-1, 9-1 ACC) broke through for six, costing the Irish 39 yards. Even if discounting those numbers from Notre Dame’s rushing stats, it averaged a mere 3.5 yards per carry.

After reaching scoring territory on each of their first three drives, the Irish could not find an offensive rhythm again. They would, in fact, not cross the Tigers’ 40-yard line again until trailing by 31 points with about eight minutes left in the game, a span of six drives, and even then it was only courtesy of a Clemson targeting penalty. Notre Dame capitalized on that gift with a 21-yard Chris Tyree touchdown rush, the definition of too little, too late — but for a broader conversation, perhaps just enough in the nick of time.

“We couldn’t finish off drives. We missed a field goal and then we got into a situation where we were in first-down situations, we were not very good running the ball on first down,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had some negative yardage plays. It’s the nature of playing an opponent a second time, they’re going to do some things.”

Those three early scoring opportunities (drives inside the opponent’s 40-yard line) retroactively represented the best Irish chance at getting to the Tigers before Lawrence found his groove. Instead, Notre Dame settled for a field goal, missed its next field goal and then was too worried about attempting another to do so and instead turned over the ball on downs.

Clemson needed three plays to turn that missed field goal into a touchdown, Lawrence connecting with senior Amari Rodgers for a 67-yard score at the expense of Irish sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford. Then after Notre Dame’s fourth-down failure, Lawrence directed a surgical six-play drive, throwing for 54 yards and rushing for 14, to take a decisive 14-3 lead.

A 14-3 lead should not be considered decisive, but with how Lawrence was humming, the Irish missed opportunities immediately loomed large, not to mention it was the first time all season Notre Dame trailed by more than a touchdown.

The presumptive No. 1 NFL draft pick, Lawrence’s Heisman campaign enjoyed a surge just before votes are due, as he finished with 322 passing yards, 90 rushing yards and three total touchdowns.

He won his third ACC title and Clemson’s sixth straight, an honor Notre Dame will now go back to not worrying about, and Lawrence secured the Tigers’ sixth straight Playoff bid, an opportunity the Irish now must worry about.

“There’s no doubt this football team is one of the four best football teams in the country,” Kelly said. “… We’ve got two top-15 wins, we’ve got a win over this Clemson team that was No. 1 in the country. I don’t know that anybody has a résumé that has those two wins, and we played 11 games, that matters. Testing your team week-in and week-out, that puts us as, without question, one of the top-four teams in the country.”

Nothing anyone can say, no amount of politicking from Brian Kelly, no amount of logic herein will soothe those Notre Dame worries until the Playoff field is set at 12 ET on Sunday on ESPN. The question goes beyond if the Irish deserve entry into the four-team field. If they do not, who should be the fourth team?

Alabama and Clemson will certainly headline the proceedings, the Tide heading to the Sugar Bowl after its entertaining win in the SEC title game tonight and the Tigers heading to AT&T Stadium outside of Dallas in place of the Rose Bowl. Given the Playoff selection committee kept Ohio State at No. 4 throughout its truncated schedule, it is rather clear the Buckeyes will reach the Playoff after beating No. 14 Northwestern in the Big Ten championship.

That will leave Notre Dame, No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 9 Cincinnati as the prime candidates to face Alabama in New Orleans on New Year’s Day. An honest and fair process would very simply send the 9-0 Bearcats, but the committee has made it clear the Group of Five has no hopes of reaching the Playoff.

Meanwhile, the Aggies have a win against No. 7 Florida, but no other result at all comparable to the Irish demolition of No. 15 North Carolina, a performance so impressive the committee moved the defeated Tar Heels up two spots in the rankings afterward. Furthermore, A&M’s loss came at the hands of Alabama, 52-24. Setting up a semifinal rematch may be a hurdle the committee balks at clearing.

The strongest argument against selecting Notre Dame is the recency of its loss to Clemson. Tyree’s late touchdown did not do much to salve the optics of the loss, but it was better than nothing, a 34-3 loss literally looking worse on the screen. When it comes to football, though, this happens.

“I think we deserve it,” said fifth-year quarterback and two-year captain Ian Book, who finished with 219 yards on 20-of-28 passing. “I think tonight wasn’t our night. Everybody who has played football before understands there are bad nights. That was tonight.”

If the committee were just, Cincinnati would meet the Tide. It is not, and Notre Dame stacks up inarguably well against the only other option for the fourth Playoff seed.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Kickers miss. And for that matter, senior Jonathan Doerer’s doink in the first quarter was not the real issue. The real issue was attempting the field goal at all.

The Irish struggled in the red zone against the Tigers in November, scoring only three touchdowns on six trips. Doing so again against a more realized version of Clemson was tempting something other than fate, more an inevitability.

“We have to finish,” Kelly said. “We can’t keep leaving points out here. There’s only so much you can do at that point.”

Doerer made his first field goal, a 51-yarder that set an ACC championship game record, so at least Notre Dame will remain in the conference record books in one regard. But he sent his next, a 24-yarder, off the upright. The Irish had not only squandered two possessions in scoring range, they had also compromised their confidence in Doerer — or, if not that, put themselves too far behind the proverbial eight-ball to proceed three points at a time moving forward.

If Notre Dame had converted one of those, it may not have felt so desperate to attempt a fourth-and-three early in the second quarter, though analytically it still should have. When senior receiver Avery Davis dropped Book’s scrambling pass along the sideline, the Irish had thus left up to 17 points on the field in the first 18 minutes of the game.

Notre Dame was never going to win Saturday — “They were the better team,” Kelly said. “They were much more consistent than we were today.” — but some early offensive proficiency where it mattered most would likely have squashed the Playoff concern now rampant.

STAT OF THE GAME
Nov. 7 Irish rushing yards: 216 on 38 carries (sacks adjusted).
Nov. 7 Tigers rushing yards: 48 on 31 carries (sacks adjusted).
Dec. 19 Irish rushing yards: 83 on 24 carries (sacks adjusted).
Dec. 19 Tigers rushing yards: 225 on 25 carries (sacks adjusted).

When Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said his team was manhandled in the trenches six weeks ago, this was the reversal he undoubtedly had in mind.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
8:16 — Notre Dame field goal. Jonathan Doerer 51 yards. Notre Dame 3, Clemson 0. (11 plays, 46 yards, 6:44)
0:41 — Clemson touchdown. Amari Rodgers 67-yard pass from Trevor Lawrence. B.T. Potter PAT good. Clemson 7, Notre Dame 3. (3 plays, 80 yards, 1:01)

Second Quarter
9:24 — Clemson touchdown. E.J. Williams 33-yard pass from Lawrence. Potter PAT good. Clemson 14, Notre Dame 3. (6 plays, 72 yards, 2:44)
4:28 — Clemson field goal. Potter 27 yards. Clemson 17, Notre Dame 3 (8 plays, 63 yards, 2:37)
0:21 — Clemson touchdown. Travis Etienne 44-yard rush. Potter PAT good. Clemson 24, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 88 yards, 1:49)

Third Quarter
3:43 — Clemson touchdown. Lawrence 34-yard rush. Potter PAT good. Clemson 31, Notre Dame 3. (8 plays, 83 yards, 2:35)

Fourth Quarter
10:31 — Clemson field goal. Potter 37 yards. Clemson 34, Notre Dame 3. (12 plays, 66 yards, 6:22)
8:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 21-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Clemson 34, Notre Dame 10. (7 plays, 75 yards, 2:22)

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