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Why Notre Dame looked so hopeless against Clemson

The Irish created the game they needed to create. And they still lost by 27.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into their College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 2 Clemson, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, underdogs by 10.5 points, faced a pretty lengthy list of musts. You could make the case that they fulfilled a couple of extremely important ones.

Must dominate special teams.

Special teams were Clemson’s biggest weakness in 2018. The Tigers came into the game ranked just 99th in Special Teams S&P+ — 123rd in punt return efficiency, 102nd in punt efficiency, 91st in field goal efficiency — while Notre Dame ranked a solid 62nd.

Sure enough, Clemson’s Greg Huegel missed a PAT and a field goal and Derion Kendrick fumbled a kick return, all in the first half, and Irish punter Tyler Newsome was brilliant, averaging 49 yards per kick over his first seven kicks, with three downed inside the 20. Special teams absolutely broke Notre Dame’s way.

Must take some risks.

When you’re out-manned play-for-play, as just about everyone is against Clemson, you have to be prepared to create some high-variance opportunities.

Notre Dame went for it on fourth-and-3 from the Clemson 34 in the second quarter (granted, that was probably more due to field position than a sense of risk-taking), then attempted a double-reverse pass a couple of drives later. Both failed, but it was the right idea. Meanwhile, they sent extra pass rushers at key times, sacking Trevor Lawrence twice in his first 20 pass attempts. They also had three passes batted into the air at the line.

Any chance at an upset began there. Unfortunately, there were a couple of other musts that didn’t go as well.

Must avoid big plays.

The Irish were brilliant at big-play prevention in the regular season — their No. 3 ranking in marginal explosiveness allowed was the key to their No. 4 ranking in Def. S&P+. They had allowed just four gains of 30-plus gains (fourth in FBS), thanks in part to the brilliant DB combination of corner Julian Love and safety Alohi Gillman.

Granted, Clemson is mighty explosive. This wasn’t a built-in advantage for the Irish as much as it was an opportunity, at least.

If the Irish can force Lawrence to simply make a lot of plays and remain patient, the moment might catch up to him at some point. Or not! But if Notre Dame figures out a way to pull the upset, it’ll probably come from forcing Clemson to work more methodically than it wants to.

Avoid the gashes, make Clemson plod down the field, force some mistakes, live to tell the tale.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame didn’t live to tell the tale. Love got hurt in the first quarter and missed the rest of the half. Gillman left the game for a bit as well. After near-perfect containment in the first quarter, the dam burst. Lawrence hit Justyn Ross for a 52-yard score, set up a field goal attempt with a 34-yarder to Ross, connected with Ross again for a 42-yard score, and found Hunter Renfrow for a 32-yarder late in the first half.

Clemson out-gained Notre Dame, 261-56, in the second quarter, thanks primarily to the gashes Notre Dame couldn’t afford to allow. It all happened with Love out of the game. And then Travis Etienne finally broke through for a 62-yard run late in the third quarter to put the game away.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson
Travis Etienne
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Must get some breaks.

Granted, “have good karma” isn’t really something in your control, but Notre Dame almost certainly needed some good breaks, as is the case for most double-digit underdogs.

Instead, they got the opposite. Love’s temporary absence was devastating, but the actual bounces of the ball favored Clemson, too. The Tigers recovered two of three fumbles in the first quarter — Ian Book lost the ball, and a Notre Dame field position advantage, on the Irish’s second drive, and on the aforementioned kick return fumble, replay overturned a Notre Dame recovery because the ball had supposedly touched out of bounds first. (It was really, really close.) Plus, three pass deflections all landed within a couple of yards of Irish defenders, but they couldn’t reel any in for picks.

Recover that kick return fumble, and you’re probably up 6-3 or 10-3 at the end of the first quarter. Reel in one of those deflections, and you’re maybe up even more.

Notre Dame didn’t, however, and pretty soon, Clemson’s pure superiority had taken over.

  • The Tigers out-gained the Irish, 538-248. Yards per play: 6.9 to 3.6.
  • Lawrence went 27-for-39 for 327 yards and three scores, while Book was 17-for-34 for 160 and a pick.
  • Etienne had 14 carries for 109 yards, and Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams had 16 for 54.
  • Ross and Tee Higgins caught 10 of 14 passes for 201 yards, and Irish receiving stars Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool caught seven of 13 for 77.

Since Lawrence was named the starter and returned from an injury suffered against Syracuse, Clemson has either been the best or co-best team in the country. Notre Dame was one of the five or six best and went undefeated against a schedule harder than the Tigers’ — the Irish very much earned their spot in the semis, whether Georgia fans or the college football populace wants to hear it.

But even if they had gotten good breaks and created an early lead from them, it wouldn’t have mattered. Lawrence almost certainly still begins to pick apart the Notre Dame secondary, Etienne almost certainly breaks a long run anyway, and the Irish offense almost certainly doesn’t build enough traction to maintain whatever lead came about.

Notre Dame created the circumstances it needed to create.

It didn’t matter a lick.