Hoonhout: Just like last time, ND-Clemson will come down to ‘guts’
Tobias Hoonhout | Wednesday, December 5, 2018
“Tonight, hey, it was BYOG — Bring Your Own Guts. And they brought some guts, and some heart, and they never quit ’til the last play.”
Dabo Swinney’s words after Notre Dame’s loss to Clemson in 2015 were must-watch television. Surrounded by adoring fans and standing in torrential rain, the passionate coach expressed pure adulation for his program, which pulled off a historic win. The Tigers would go all the way to the national championship that season, only to lose to Alabama. But the program would get its revenge the following season, and has been among the “Final Four” every year since then.
In many ways, the win against the Irish (12-0) marked a coming-of-age party for the Tigers (13-0, 8-0 ACC).
Except, the win was less about what Clemson did right — and more about what Notre Dame did wrong.
Playing in a maelstrom, Brian Kelly’s program shot itself in the foot, over and over and over. First, it was Artavis Scott bouncing off failed tackles from Elijah Shumate and Cole Luke to put the Tigers up 14-0. Then, it was two fumbles on two plays to start the third quarter, gifting Clemson a touchdown. And then, with 2:13 left in the game and Notre Dame down by eight, Chris Brown caught a ball from DeShone Kizer and scampered all the way down to the Tigers’ 3-yard line, only to cough up another Irish fumble.
Yet, even with all of the shortcomings, the Irish scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion attempt with seven seconds left. Just when the Tigers seemed set to break, they only bent, as Clemson’s linebackers stuffed Kizer’s keeper to win the game. It was a play that would later prove decisive in keeping Notre Dame out of the playoffs.
And while the game has gone down as a classic, the Clemson monsoon continued to rain on the Irish over the next two seasons.
First, it was the debacle of 2016, in which an early storm with “the Fulton Five” stood as a harbinger of more bad weather to come — in the shape of a 4-8 season and a lot of failed expectations. 2017 was better, until the Irish ran into the Hurricanes in South Beach.
As Clemson made the playoffs again and again, Notre Dame couldn’t get over the hangover of its expectations.
But this year, Kelly and the Irish have finally done it. Through the ups and downs, the blowouts and the close calls, the injuries and the depth chart adjustments, Notre Dame has emerged from the regular season unscathed, and finds itself in the CFP for the first time.
Against the very team that has set the bar for the Irish.
While Vegas has the Tigers at 12-point favorites, and ESPN FPI gives the Tigers a whopping 71.4 percent chance to win, on paper, this matchup looks incredibly even. From top to bottom, both programs mirror each other in a number of categories.
Offensively, Clemson and Notre Dame both put up a lot of points per game. They both have explosive running backs in sophomore Travis Etienne and senior Dexter Williams. Both teams’ leading receiver — sophomore Tee Higgins and senior Myles Boykin — have eight touchdown grabs. And both teams made changes at quarterback midway through the season: freshman Trevor Lawrence and junior Ian Book are separated by 20 passing yards.
Defensively, both teams have forced 20 turnovers. Clemson and Notre Dame have also shared four opponents this season: Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Florida State and Syracuse. Notre Dame struggled to beat Pitt at home but trounced Syracuse in Yankee Stadium; Clemson barely beat Syracuse at home but dominated Pitt in the ACC championship.
If the Irish finally want to prove they belong, there’s perhaps no better team for Brian Kelly’s program to open its playoff account against than the Tigers.
Ever since the win over Notre Dame, Dabo Swinney has proved time and time again his team has the “guts” to compete for national titles, capped off with 2017’s redemption against Alabama. And while it’s taken the Irish a long and windy road to finally get in the same position, 2018 has been a year to remember.
Notre Dame has now finished 12-0 twice under Brian Kelly, joining a list of only three other teams (including Clemson) to accomplish the same feat during that timespan. But for all the adjustments this season that finally paid off for Notre Dame — the benching of senior Brandon Wimbush in favor of Book, defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s revolution of the Irish defense and the program’s ability to win challenging games on the road — the real work starts against the Tigers.
Kelly was brought to Notre Dame not only to compete for national championships, but to win them too. After several seasons of figuring out the right process, and correcting costly mistakes, the Irish finally showed the “guts” necessary to make the CFP.
It seems fitting that Dec. 29 will decide whether they actually have what it takes.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.