In a game that looked like it would be competitive at the beginning, Notre Dame football suffered an all-too-familiar fate at the hands of Clemson.
This Notre Dame football team was supposed to be different. This Notre Dame team was supposed to compete with the National Powers in the College Football Playoff. This Notre Dame team was supposed to change the narrative. None turned out to be true, at least on Saturday night.
After the first quarter, the score was even at 3 and Notre Dame certainly looked like a team poised to compete for a win. The defense was providing pressure on Trevor Lawrence and stopping the run. The offense was moving the ball fairly effectively, and outside of a fumble on the second drive, looked capable.
Then, Julian Love left the game with an apparent head injury. Notre Dame had just missed an unfortunate bounce on a Clemson fumbled kickoff that was ruled out of bounds, and now were down their most valuable defensive player – and it showed instantly.
Clemson would score on three offensive possessions in the second quarter. All three scores came on long pass plays. Justyn Ross out-muscled Donte Vaughn–Love’s replacement–on the outside for the first score. Ross would then get a favorable matchup against Alohi Gilman in the slot when Notre Dame shaded over to help Vaughn. Lastly, Tee Higgins would make a terrific bobbling, one-handed grab after a Vaughn tipped pass in the end zone. Just like that, Clemson was taking a 23-3 lead into halftime. It was 9-3 with 1:44 remaining in the half.
That was the game
The Notre Dame offense was stymied the rest of the game. Ian Book look flustered for the first time all season. The Irish had open receivers, but Clemson’s talented defensive front was in Book’s head. Instead of working through his progressions when he had time, oftentimes he chose to tuck it in and run.
With Love back in the Notre Dame secondary, the Notre Dame defense held Clemson to just seven second-half points. Lawrence threw for over 200 yards and 3 scores with Love on the bench, and was held to just over 80 yards with Love in the game. The Irish corner depth was exposed today, but yet again the offense was the main issue.
The Ian Book-led Irish in 2018 average close to 40 points. Book threw for at least 2 touchdowns in every game before yesterday’s game. He finished the day 17-for-34 for 160 yards and two turnovers. He took some uncharacteristic sacks and didn’t keep his eyes downfield when time allowed for it.
Football is a game of inches. Early on, inches weren’t in Notre Dame’s favor. Book’s fumble, Clemson’s overturned fumble, Mack’s dropped pass, Love’s injury, Bilal’s interception, Higgins’ touchdown–all were plays that could have changed the outcome of the game, and as a fan it is hard to get those plays out of your head, as we always want to play the “what-if” game.
Clemson was and is the better team. Notre Dame is much closer than they were in 2012, but they aren’t there yet. It’s possible that Alabama and Clemson are a step above the rest, and Notre Dame is somewhere in that next tier. However, at some point Notre Dame will need to prove they can compete on the day the game is scheduled instead of leaving fans thinking “what if the game was played again tomorrow?”