ARLINGTON, Texas — Let’s get this part out of the way: Notre Dame lost to Clemson in its first trip to the College Football Playoff on Saturday, 30–3. That’s a 27-point margin. Six years ago, the last time the Fighting Irish went undefeated in a regular season, they lost to Alabama in the national championship, 42–14. That loss was by 28 points.
It’s easy to glance at the box scores and pin the stigma on Notre Dame that it doesn’t belong on the big stage for various reasons, not having the personnel to run with the nation’s elite teams being a popular one. But these outcomes, though they look nearly identical on paper, are different.
First, the similarities: Both losses were by four possessions, and Notre Dame gave up 529 yards (while gaining 302) to the Crimson Tide and 538 yards (gained 238) to the Tigers.
There’s a story often told from that 2013 media day at the Orange Bowl. Notre Dame was the first team to arrive for interviews. After the Irish left, Alabama walked in, and it was clear who had the upper hand in this matchup. The Tide held a significant size advantage, which ended up being a preview of how the game unfolded. Alabama scored on its opening drive and led 28–0 by halftime. Notre Dame never had a chance.
That was not the case this year against Clemson. Let Brian Kelly explain.
“This is a totally different feeling,” said Kelly, who just completed his ninth season coaching the Irish. “I feel like this football team is on the brink. Where, when I left that game, it was, ‘Boy, do we have a lot of work to do.’”
Notre Dame now has to hear about why it wasn’t one of the “four best teams” worthy of a playoff spot. Georgia and Ohio State players quickly started questioning the Irish on Twitter after the loss. And it’s worth noting that this program has struggled when it comes to New Year’s Six caliber games. In the last two decades, it’s been smacked twice by Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl (2005, ’15), pummeled by LSU in the Sugar Bowl (’06) and blown out by Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl (’00), to name a few. Don’t expect Dabo Swinney to join that chorus.
“Notre Dame is the best team we played all year,” Swinney said after the game.
All of those losses were devastating in their own way. This time, Notre Dame’s defense uncharacteristically gave up four big plays that swung the game. Heading into the playoff, Clark Lea’s defense was tied for second in the country in limiting big plays of 40 yards or more, but gave up three for Clemson touchdowns. Notre Dame also had two turnovers that resulted in 10 Tigers’ points, four calls overturned against them, only scored three points on offense, and was without top cornerback Julian Love for most of the first half due to a head injury.
“You lose big plays, you lose the turnover battle, you probably lose the game,” said captain Drue Tranquill, his eyes still damp from tears.
The Notre Dame locker room was a solemn, quiet place juxtaposed with Clemson’s, where guys were wearing cowboy hats and checking in on the Alabama–Oklahoma score. After accomplishing all of their goals this fall, the season ended in crushing fashion. But the Irish do not believe there’s a gap between their program and the rest of the playoff field. This is an honest group that admits when it’s been outplayed and overmatched. The Irish are confident this game wasn’t lost because they didn’t have the right talent, athleticism, size or strength.
“I mean physically, in the first quarter me and Te’von [Coney] were talking and we felt so much stronger than our opponent,” Tranquill said. “We were stuffing the run game, the play speed wasn’t overwhelming for us, and so, I don’t know. I’ve played in games where I’m like, ‘Whoa, we don’t necessarily match up athletically with these guys.’ I didn’t feel that today.
“It was a lack of execution more than anything. Guys were in position in big play opportunities down the field and their receivers made the play instead of us. Then we misfit a gap and allowed [Travis Etienne] to really put the game away and go 50 yards to the house and that’s pretty much the story of the game.”
Notre Dame prides itself on having grit and laser focus. Those are two of Kelly’s mantras. Starting the game with three fumbles in the first quarter isn’t indicative of those traits, though. The Tigers proved to have more of both.
“The scoreboard is not reflective of this team,” Tranquill said. “We played our worst game this year and that’s tough when it’s the playoffs.
“As a competitor and aspiring champion you want to go out on top. We didn’t do that tonight, so it hurts and it’s going to hurt for awhile.”