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How leaning into the future helped Clemson destroy Notre Dame

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The Tigers are talented, but they’re also playing a modern brand of football that puts new stressors on defenses. That was too much for Notre Dame to handle.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Clemson-over-Notre Dame Cotton Bowl semifinal was lopsided. The Tigers won by 27, nearly doubled up the Irish in yards per play, and cruised down the stretch.

The result led to a lot of takes about Notre Dame’s Playoff-worthiness and whether the Playoff really needs to get any bigger. But for its lopsided outcome, the way the Cotton Bowl played out had more interesting implications for both the upcoming National Championship and modern college football in general.

1. Clemson’s early-season switch to Trevor Lawrence is paying off.

Clemson had clear reasons for switching to Trevor Lawrence at QB this season. The Tigers learned clearly in 2016 and 2017 that the difference between beating Alabama and getting beaten down was how well they could spread the defense and attack matchups in the passing game (with Deshaun Watson) or not (with Kelly Bryant).

Up until the Playoff, Clemson was doing just fine by primarily spreading opponents so it could run. The plan was to force teams to yield easy throws to the perimeter or leave gaps for Travis Etienne to run through, and he had a dominant season.

But that was never going to work on its own in the Playoff, certainly not against Alabama and maybe not against Notre Dame either. The Irish kept Etienne under wraps until he broke free for a 62-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that closed the game’s scoring.

At the highest levels, teams know how to fit the spread run game and use an extra man to force a QB to beat coverage instead. When they can do that, QBs who can find matchups and beat man coverage at a high level become a nightmare for elite defenses — even ones like Notre Dame’s that specialize in preventing big plays. Lawrence had more potential here than Bryant. The question was if he and his young receivers could put it together this soon.

Sure enough, Lawrence came out firing. He finished 27-of-29 for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Two came in the first half, letting Clemson run clock late.

2. Notre Dame’s early-season QB change wasn’t nearly enough. Part of that was that the Irish didn’t have enough of a plan to help Ian Book.

The Irish went to Book after three games for the same reasons Clemson handed the reins to Lawrence after four. Book was a better passer than Brandon Wimbush, which offered more opportunities for Notre Dame to unleash its own arsenal of massive and talented skill athletes at WR. Three of the Irish’s top four targets this season were at least 6’4 and 225 pounds, making it easy for Brian Kelly’s team to hunt favorable matchups.

But Book wasn’t up to it against Clemson’s pass rush and secondary, and the Irish didn’t have a good plan to help him. They yielded sacks after their insistence on using tight ends traditionally let Clemson have matchups like defensive ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell against tight ends in pass protection, with predictable results.

Each picked up a sack working off the edge against a TE, and the Tigers had six sacks on the day. In today’s game, tight ends need to be used to create matchups, while tackles protect the edge. Facing Clemson, a team’s much better off using TEs that way and allowing the QB more chances to make quick reads and get rid of the ball.

But even when Notre Dame did spread things out more, Clemson’s disguises and pressures still befuddled Book. The clearest picture of that was when Clemson showed a pressure only to drop into a three-man rush with a QB spy, and Book ran right into the spy for a sack.

Book spent much of the evening running for his life. Filtering out six sacks, he ran 11 times for 55 yards — a solid effort, but not enough alongside 3.4 yards per pass attempt (sacks included). By denying Notre Dame passing opportunities and absorbing a few decent runs, Clemson kept the Irish out of the end zone all day. While Notre Dame was reduced to leaning on QB runs, Clemson was able to fling the ball around.

3. The modern game is ruthless, and you need to be matchup-proof on at least one side of the ball. Clemson showed what happens when you aren’t.

Notre Dame entered with the No. 4 defense by S&P+. The Irish’s top cornerback, Thorpe Award finalist Julian Love, was injured for a long stretch of the first half.

In that quarter-plus, the Irish lost the game. The Tigers immediately went after Love’s replacement, Donte Vaughn, notably on the TD pass above. On that TD, the Irish played in single-high coverage with one deep safety and both inside backers staying in the box to watch Lawrence and the spread run game. That left cornerbacks on islands down either sideline, and Lawrence threw a fade to four-star, 6’4 freshman Justyn Ross for a long TD.

Later in the half, the Irish tried to use star linebacker Drue Tranquill, who’d been multi-tasking already, trying to bottle up Etienne and take away slot WR Hunter Renfrow, and bailed him outside underneath to give Vaughn a hand. So Lawrence threw again to Ross, who’d gotten singled up against run-stopping safety Alohi Gilman.

Touchdown. And later on, Clemson got five-star sophomore Tee Higgins isolated against Vaughn for a TD just before halftime.

College football is now about creating matchups with spread formations and throwing where you have advantages. Clemson could’ve attacked those spots all day and won by even more, but the Tigers were content to chew time in the second half.

To beat a team like Clemson or Alabama, that’s the game you have to play: one focused on going after weaknesses. The teams in the title game just don’t have many.