SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame had so stymied No. 4 Clemson that the unbeaten Tigers sought juice any way they could find it. They turned to the most popular player on any team, the highly-touted five-star backup quarterback, for a spark, and instead, the Irish defense immediately sent Cade Klubnik back to the bench.
Notre Dame freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison intercepted Klubnik’s first pass attempt Saturday night and thus sealed the Irish upset of Clemson (8-1), a 35-14 rout that would more accurately be described as a mauling.
“They just physically kicked our butt,” Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Period. The end.”
Three plays after Morrison’s snag, one forced by pressure from fifth-year defensive end Justin Ademilola, Notre Dame (6-3) capitalized via a two-yard Audric Estimé touchdown. With a three-touchdown lead, the Irish could securely resort to their preferred means of operation and eat the clock given Clemson had yet to produce a quality drive on eight possessions.
That would change on the very next drive, only for Morrison to intercept Tigers’ starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei inside the red zone and if that was the night’s exclamation point, Morrison’s 96-yard touchdown return was seven more exclamations that would be outdone in lasting memory only by the scene of Notre Dame Stadium emptying onto the field and surrounding Irish head coach Marcus Freeman in jubilation.
“You can hear those fans, the students,” Freeman said from the podium after the game, the fans funneling up the tunnel out of the stadium only some 50 feet and one set of doors away, still very audible. “I really didn’t want to leave that field. I mean, just spend some time with those students. This is a game that I’ll never forget.”
Marcus Freeman gets his moment with a packed Notre Dame Stadium tunnel pic.twitter.com/D4JSm12mnz
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 6, 2022
Uiagalelei or Klubnik, Clemson’s offense never found any sort of a rhythm. Its first half production consisted of a pair of three-and-outs, two four-and-outs and one drive stalling in Irish territory. The Tigers had 71 yards at halftime, most of them coming via sophomore running back Will Shipley. But as Notre Dame opened its lead, Clemson could not solely rely on a ground-based attack. It needed explosive plays, and they were nowhere to be found. By the time the Irish held a three-score lead, the Tigers had turned over the ball as many times as it had reached Notre Dame’s half of the field, two of each.
“As the defense continues to force Clemson to punt, the offense doesn’t feel that pressure of we have to score,” Freeman said. “Our defense came up huge today. Again, I’m proud. They have done a really good job all year.”
The Irish hardly found explosive plays, either, making Morrison’s touchdown stand out all the more, not to mention Notre Dame’s special teams once again wreaked havoc.
The fifth Irish punt block in their last four games, junior linebacker Jordan Botelho got his hands on the boot and it landed in sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie’s lap with a clear path to the end zone 19 yards away, staking Notre Dame to its initial lead that would grow with a designed run for junior quarterback Drew Pyne into the end zone just before halftime.
“I challenged that (punt block) group yesterday,” Freeman said. “I said, ‘Listen, you won’t surprise anybody. Everybody in the country knows you’re coming after a punt.’
“When you find ways to execute and you find ways to play with relentless effort, it doesn’t matter if a team knows you’re coming after a punt or not.”
On an evening in which winds would dampen scoring and lessen any margin for error, that early swing put the pressure on the top-five team, not the home team looking to avoid a third loss on its own turf.
Those winds may have played a role in Notre Dame kicker Blake Grupe’s second-quarter miss, a 42-yarder that drifted left of the uprights, and that miss presumably altered coaching decisions throughout the rest of the game, even as winds gradually calmed somewhat after blowing at 23 miles per hour at kickoff. But after Morrison set up Estimé’s first score, those decisions became moot.
At that point, the only remaining doubt was if the Irish fans would storm the field for a second time in three years after a win over Clemson. That doubt dissipated as stadium personnel walked along the perimeter of the field quite literally coaching fans on how to rush the field safely, to stay away from all Tigers players and to clear out if they did not want to charge the turf.
“Our fans deserve this win,” junior tight end Michael Mayer said, coming off a four-catch, 44-yard, record-setting touchdown performance. “It’s been a little bit of an up and down season, to say the least.”
STAT OF THE NIGHT
Swinney’s “Period. The end.” thought summed up Notre Dame’s dominance. Clemson justly boasts one of the best defensive lines in the country. It is as deep as it is talented. Yet, the Irish offensive line held the Tigers defensive line to one sack, a one-yard loss in the first quarter. That was also the defensive line’s only tackle for loss.
Dabo not running from the obvious tonight. Said they got totally dominated… "Starting with coaching. Blocking, tackling"
"you get what you earn, and we earned this [L] tonight."
— Richard🇬🇾Johnson (@RJ_Writes) November 6, 2022
Clemson’s defense managed just four tackles for loss. As Notre Dame ran the ball 46 times for 265 yards, not counting the kneel down to run out the final seconds, the Tigers could not cause defensive havoc. Those four tackles for loss cost the Irish eight total yards.
“We knew this defensive line was special, but we couldn’t shy away from our strength,” Freeman said. “It was a challenge to our offensive line, to our quarterback, to our running backs.
“At some point during the game, their confidence rose and they said, we can block anybody in the country, and they showed that tonight.”
PHOTO OF THE NIGHT
Audric Estimé is listed at 229 pounds. Add in full pads, and he is probably at least 240 pounds. At least.
— Matt Cashore (@mattcashore) November 6, 2022
A SMATTERING OF STATS
Pyne threw only 17 passes, the second straight week he dropped back fewer than 20 times, completing nine of them for just 85 yards.
“Man, he’s a winner,” Freeman said. “He has to be unselfish and continue to not look at stats, just look at, do I do the things necessary for us to win? He did. He took care of the football. When we decide to throw the ball, he did. He took some shots. He really ran the play clock efficiently. There’s a lot of things he’s going to be able to build off of this one.”
Clemson running back Will Shipley accounted for 80 total yards, 63 of them on the ground. At halftime, though, Shipley had 51 of the Tigers’ 71 yards. In the second quarter alone, Shipley gained 34 yards on four touches; Clemson’s second-quarter output was 15 yards on 10 plays.
The Tigers are negative-five in turnover differential in their last two games, a number boosted by a desperation Syracuse turnover two weeks ago. Notre Dame had not come out ahead in the turnover margin this season until its own game at Syracuse last week, making this two straight weeks the Irish have stolen more possessions than they have gifted, after starting the season negative-seven through seven games.
9:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Prince Kollie 19-yard blocked punt return. Blake Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Clemson 0.
0:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Drew Pyne 4-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Clemson 0. (11 plays, 78 yards, 5:47)
14:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 2-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Clemson 0. (3 plays, 14 yards, 1:05)
12:58 — Notre Dame touchdown. Benjamin Morrison 96-yard interception return. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Clemson 0.
10:14 — Clemson touchdown. Will Shipley 1-yard rush. BT Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Clemson 7. (11 plays, 75 yards, 2:44)
4:16 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 17-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Clemson 7. (11 plays, 75 yards, 5:58)
1:35 — Clemson touchdown. Joseph Ngata 4-yard pass from DJ Uiagalelei. Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Clemson 14. (10 plays, 75 yards, 2:41)