Kevin McGuire

Contributor to and Athlon Sports. Host of Locked on Nittany Lions Podcast, Twitch streamer, trombone player and amateur runner. FWAA member and Philadelphia area native and resident.

With another storied season ending unfulfilled, what’s next for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly?

Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

So, what now for Notre Dame?

That’s the easy question to ask a day after Notre Dame saw their perfect season and title hopes go up in smoke as they were grilled southwestern style by a more physical, athletic, skilled and healthy Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Comparing the aftermath of another undefeated regular season ending on an unfulfilled note under Brian Kelly between this season and the 2012 season will inevitably serve up some similar questions about the state of the program. But are any of those questions truly legitimate years later?

There will be plenty of comparison between this 30-3 loss to Clemson and the 42-14 smackdown against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. Notre Dame was clearly at a disadvantage with its roster compared to their counterpart in each of those games. Against Alabama, the Crimson Tide were just bigger and stronger. As a result, Kelly has taken measures to improve his own team’s size and athleticism through recruiting, and Notre Dame has become an arguably better team and program because of it.

Against Clemson, Notre Dame’s shortcomings on the roster were once again evident, and not just because of notable injuries to key players like Julian Love missing the second quarter. If anything, the performance against Clemson showed Notre Dame may have improved its top-line talent, but it could benefit from improving the depth on the roster. Where Clemson was able to adjust for the absence of one of its top defensive players, the suspended Dexter Lawrence, Notre Dame was not equipped to overcome the loss of Love. Once Love left the game, Clemson took to the air attacking the position. Not coincidentally, Clemson scored two long touchdowns and closed the half with a third touchdown from 19 yards to take a commanding lead going to halftime, with all of the damage being done in the passing game.

If Notre Dame continues to improve its roster as a result of this latest loss, the Irish will remain in the playoff discussion in future seasons. But for now, Notre Dame and Kelly will have no choice but to endure the obvious reactions from national pundits and critics of Notre Dame. Comments about why Notre Dame needs to join a conference were popping up all over the Twittersphere at halftime of the Cotton Bowl. It tends to be the first line of defense for any Notre Dame critic who looks for a reason to suggest Notre Dame didn’t belong in the four-team College Football Playoff to begin with. But this result will not force Notre Dame to re-evaluate its place in the college football landscape, nor should it.

The main focus for Kelly is what do you do next?

Perhaps the question is whether or not Kelly will see much reason to change his approach with the program. Keep in mind this playoff field saw both Alabama and Clemson as lopsided favorites, almost regardless of their opponents in any playoff field you could imagine. All season long, Alabama and Clemson were perceived to be the two absolute best college football programs on a collision course for the national championship game for a third time in the playoff era. Should there be any shame in losing to one of these teams on their way to the national championship? Of course not, however you have to wonder how much losing by 27 points stings inside the mind of Kelly and the rest of the program.

Kelly changed his tune this season after facing plenty of scrutiny over how he handled himself in previous seasons. As a result, Notre Dame went 12-0 and earned a spot in the playoff. Can Notre Dame get better? Absolutely, because there is clearly room for improvement. But does Notre Dame need to change much to get another crack at the playoff? Perhaps not.

No. 3 Notre Dame title hopes snapped by dominant performance by No. 2 Clemson in Cotton Bowl

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This was supposed to be a different year with a different result compared to Notre Dame’s run to the BCS Championship Game in 2012. And although this year was different in many regards, from the team that was built through recruiting and player development, it will be nearly impossible to avoid the comparisons between how this season ended and how the 2012 season ended. No. 3 Notre Dame was no match for No. 2 Clemson, the champions of the ACC, in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. Clemson dominated the Fighting Irish, 30-3, to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against either No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Oklahoma.

Notre Dame’s perfect season came to an imperfect end against the Tigers, who used big plays from their blue-chip quarterback Trevor Lawrence to stud wide receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins against a banged-up Notre Dame defense. Notre Dame’s inability to get a video review to go their way and to get anything going on offense proved to be more catastrophic in this one, however.

In a game Notre Dame needed to play cleanly and without mistakes, two turnovers proved to be costly. Two turnovers led to 10 Clemson points, including the first points of the game on a long Clemson field goal in the first quarter. An interception in the second half thrown by Ian Book led to a quick Clemson touchdown when Travis Etienne took off up the middle for a 62-yard run. Notre Dame was snake-bitten by long touchdown plays against the Tigers. Lawrence completed two touchdown throws of 52 and 42 yards to Ross in a dominant second quarter that proved to be the most important quarter of the game. Clemson outscored the Irish 20-0 in the half, which was capped with a late touchdown pass from Lawrence to Higgins with just two seconds until halftime to give Clemson a dominating 23-3 lead at the break.

There was nothing more to be said in the second half as Clemson’s defense continued to control the game. Things were so comfortable for Clemson that head coach Dabo Swinney found an opportunity in the fourth quarter to take out his starters and play the second stringers knowing there would be one more game to be played for Clemson.

Notre Dame was held to just 88 rushing yards against a Clemson defense playing without Dexter Lawrence on the line, thus proving Clemson’s defensive line was still a strength. Ian Book completed just 17 of his 34 pass attempts for 160 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. Dexter Williams had 54 of those rushing yards for the Irish.

One thing Notre Dame’s defense wanted to do was put pressure on young quarterback sensation Trevor Lawrence. That did not go according to plan for the Irish. Lawrence completed 27 of 40 pass attempts for 327 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. There were a few moments of pride for the Irish in chasing down Lawrence on the move, but the talented big arm ability of Lawrence combined with a healthy stable of sure-handed receivers proved too much for Notre Dame, who at times were playing without Julian Love for an apparent head injury (Love did return to the game after halftime).

Lawrence’s big touchdown passes to Ross were big-time moments in the second quarter with the game slanting heavily in favor of Clemson, but it was Lawrence’s pass to Higgins in the back of the end zone that mail have been the nail in the coffin for the Irish just before halftime. On the play, it showed that even when Notre Dame could get a hand on breaking up the pass, things were just going to go Clemson’s way.

This game got away from Notre Dame in the second quarter, and it started with the Irish being stopped on a 4th-and-3 from the Clemson 34-yard line. With the game still tied 3-3 and Notre Dame stringing together a solid-looking drive, Ian Book’s pass intended for Miles Boykin was broken up by Isaiah Simmons for a turnover on downs. Who knows for sure how the drive would have ended had Notre Dame picked up the first down on the play, but happened after that seemed to be a sequence of events that would not play out in favor of the Irish.

Clemson took just three plays to get Trevor Lawrence to connect with Justyn Ross for a 52-yard touchdown. Notre Dame went three-and-out and gave up another long drive to the Tigers, although Notre Dame seemingly survived with a missed field goal try by the Tigers. But Notre Dame’s offense could not find anything to work with and punted after a short series, which was followed by another long touchdown pass from Lawrence to Ross. Another short offensive series by the Irish followed by a late touchdown pass from Lawrence to Tee Higgins gave Clemson a 23-3 lead at halftime after a dominant second quarter.

Would things have been different if that fourth-down pass from Book to Boykin was completed? We will just never know for sure.

Clemson rolled up 538 yards of total offense on Notre Dame. it was the first time since Nov. 4, 2017 Notre Dame allowed at least 500 yards in a game. Wake Forest had 587 yards of offense against the Irish in that game, a 48-37 victory for Notre Dame. It was the eighth time since the start of the 2015 season Notre Dame allowed 500 yards in a game. The last time Notre Dame allowed over 500 yards of offense in a bowl game was the 2012 season’s BCS National Championship Game against Alabama (529 yards).

First Quarter
8:35 – Clemson field goal. Greg Huegel, 40 yards. Clemson 3, Notre Dame 0 (9 plays, 31 yards, 3:15)
4:31 – Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon, 28 yards. Clemson 3, Notre Dame 3 (10 plays, 66 yards, 4:04)

Second Quarter
12:50 – Clemson touchdown. Trevor Lawrence pass to Justyn Ross, 52 yards. Greg Huegel PAT blocked. Clemson 9, Notre Dame 0 (3 plays, 65 yards, 1:04)
1:44 – Clemson touchdown. Trevor Lawrence pass to Justyn Ross, 42 yards. Greg Huegel PAT good. Clemson 16, Notre Dame 3 (8 plays, 85 yards, 3:12)
0:02 – Clemson touchdown. Trevor Lawrence pass to Tee Higgins, 19 yards. Greg Huegel PAT good. Clemson 23, Notre Dame 3 (4 plays, 80 yards, 0:46)

Third Quarter
2:04 – Clemson touchdown. Travis Etienne 62-yard run. Greg Huegel PAT good. Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3 (3 plays, 71 yards, 1:01)

No. 2 Clemson in full control of No. 3 Notre Dame at halftime of Cotton Bowl, leading 23-3

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A pair of long touchdown passes by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence to Justyn Ross in the second quarter have been the big difference through one half of play in the College Football Playoff semifinal game being played in the Cotton Bowl. No. 2 Clemson leads No. 3 Notre Dame 23-3 at the half in Arlington as the Irish are in desperate search of a spark on offense to make things interesting in the second half.

With Clemson playing without star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, Notre Dame went attacking on the ground right away with a designed run with Dexter Williams picking up 11 yards to open the game. The opening drive would stall soon after that, however, with a false start penalty called on Williams and a third-down drop by Chase Claypool on what might have been a first down.

The Notre Dame defense showed they were ready to play on their first series against the Tigers, forcing a three-and-out. The defense was again put to the test following the first critical event of the game. Ian Book fumbled the football and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell recovered at the Clemson 47-yard line. Clemson was held to a 40-yard field goal on the possession, which should go down as a victory for the Irish defense all things considered.

Book made up for his turnover on the ensuing possession with a big third-down completion to Williams, who picked up 16 yards when he needed 10 for a first down. Book then attempted a pass down the left side of the field to Miles Boykin that fell incomplete, but Clemson was flagged for pass interference for 15 yards and a free first down. Book completed his next two passes and then took off running for a first down to take the Irish into the red zone for the first time of the game. But, in a game of defense, Notre Dame would settle for a field goal try by Justin Yoon from 28 yards out to draw the game even at 3-3 in the first quarter.

Notre Dame seemingly made a big play on special teams with a fumble recovery but video replay ruled Clemson’s Derion Kendrick had managed to knock the football out of bounds prior to the Notre Dame recovery, ensuring Clemson retained possession of the football by rule.

With the game tied 3-3 after one quarter of play, Clemson came up with a big passing play to quickly put together the game’s first touchdown early in the second quarter. Trevor Lawrence tossed a ball up along the right sideline to Justyn Ross, who hauled in the pass and broke a tackle and managed to race his way down the sideline to reach the who spent 15 minutes in the sideline medical tent for an apparent leg injury. He was seen riding a stationary bike on the sideline as the second quarter continued. Midway through the second quarter, free safety Alohi Gilman was helped off the field as well as injuries started to become a serious concern for the Irish.

Notre Dame missed on a chance to get some more points on the board later in the second quarter when a video replay review overturned a pass completion and fumble recovery by Alize Mack. What would have been a gain of eight or nine yards instead dropped the Irish into a 3rd & 10, which was soon followed by a punt from midfield. It was the second video replay that frustrated Notre Dame fans.

Clemson would pad their lead on the ensuing possession with Lawrence once again connecting with Ross for a long touchdown pass, this time a 42-yard pass down the middle to the streaking receiver in open space. A costly roughing the passer penalty just before halftime committed by Jerry Tillery allowed Clemson to have a chance to go for the jugular just before halftime, and that’s just what they did. Lawrence connected with Tee Higgins for a 19-yard score that was upheld by video review, putting Clemson up 23-3 with two seconds remaining in the half.

Notre Dame has some work to do against one of the best defenses in the country. The offense has tried running some tricks and plays to keep Clemson on their toes, but the Tigers have responded well in coverage and are not allowing much room to work for the Irish. We’ll see what kind of adjustments can be made at the halftime break as Notre Dame attempts to make a comeback in the second half.