Irish season comes to an end in national semifinal as offense falls flat
Elizabeth Greason | Sunday, December 30, 2018
ARLINGTON, Texas — Graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill removed his helmet to reveal his tear-streaked eye black and took a knee on the sideline as the Tiger Band transitioned from the Clemson fight song to “Celebrate Good Times.” Senior linebacker Robert Regan and graduate student tight end Nic Weishar came over and offered hugs and pats on the back but were ushered toward the locker room by Irish coaching staff. Tranquill looked up at the massive video board at AT&T Stadium, before slapping his helmet, perhaps for the final time, standing, wiping his eyes and running toward the tunnel.
It wasn’t just Tranquill who took No. 3 Notre Dame’s blowout 30-3 loss to No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl to heart. Senior running back Dexter Williams also took a knee on the field and stared at the ground, his green hair facing the dome of AT&T Stadium.
It was a close game, until it wasn’t.
Four plays were the essential difference-maker between a close defensive battle and a game Notre Dame (12-1) will hope to forget.
“You can’t give up four big plays on defense. We did not do that all year. Uncharacteristic of our defense,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “And we generated virtually no big plays. We didn’t play the kind of offense that would lend itself to scoring enough points to beat a talented Clemson team. So we’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to put our kids in a better position to succeed, and we’ve got to make plays on this stage.”
The Tigers (14-0, 8-0 ACC) struck first, as junior defensive end Clelin Ferrell forced a fumble from Irish junior quarterback Ian Book, giving Clemson the ball at its own 47-yard line. However, the Irish defense was able to limit the Tigers to a field goal as the run defense successfully wrapped up star Tigers sophomore running back Travis Etienne and Irish junior defensive lineman Daelin Hayes continued to put pressure on Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Clemson senior kicker Greg Huegel’s 40-yard field goal was good, but the Irish answered quickly.
A pass interference call as Book attempted to connect with senior wideout Miles Boykin downfield helped advance the Irish, but Williams’ small gains got Notre Dame into the red zone. Book was forced to throw the ball away under pressure on second down, and sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong was unable to pick up the first on third down, giving senior kicker Justin Yoon the opportunity for a 28-yard chip shot, which he made.
From there, the Irish could not catch a break and it was all downhill.
On the kickoff return, Irish sophomore tight end Cole Kmet forced a fumble from Tigers freshman returner Derion Kendrick, and junior wide receiver Chase Claypool scooped the ball up on the very edge of the field. After much celebration on the Irish sideline, the pylon cam showed an angle in which the ball touched out of bounds before the recovery and Clemson was given possession at the 13-yard line.
Senior cornerback Julian Love said the bottom line was that the Irish can’t get upset when reviews don’t go their way because had they played well enough in the first place, it should not have had to be reviewed.
“I think that as players you shouldn’t leave it to review. That’s as simple as it is,” he said. “We should have made better plays across the board, to not even put ourself in a compromising position like that and to leave it to review.”
The Irish got the ball back quickly with the help of a sack by junior defensive lineman Julian Okwara.
With possession, the following Irish drive looked as if it were shaping up to be a successful one, but the Notre Dame offense stalled out midway into Clemson territory.
After throwing incomplete to Boykin on first down, Book returned to the senior receiver for a seven-yard catch on first down. But under duress on third down, he was unable to connect with senior receiver Chris Finke. Notre Dame decided it was in four-down territory, but Tigers senior defensive end Austin Bryant was all Book could see on the fourth-and-three play, as he tossed a long pass to Boykin off one foot with almost no time to get rid of the ball and the Irish turned the ball over on downs.
Three plays later, the tie was broken and the Irish, who had built themselves a reputation for not giving up big plays, had given up quite a large one.
On first-and-10, Lawrence found freshman receiver Justyn Ross for a 52-yard touchdown, on which junior cornerback Donte Vaughn — in for Love who left early in the second quarter and was attempting to clear concussion protocol — was unable to make the tackle.
“It was hurting me internally because I, obviously, wanted to be out there. I wanted to help our team,” Love said of not being able to be on the field. “And in a sense, I let them down in that regard. So I tried to do what I could in the second half, but it definitely didn’t feel good.”
Kelly said losing Love was no excuse for giving up 30 points to the Tigers and giving up big plays for the first time this season.
“We have to be good enough that we can overcome the loss of one player. Clemson was able to overcome the loss of a great defensive lineman [in junior Dexter Lawrence],” Kelly said. “We have to be able to overcome the loss of a really good player, and that’s the bottom line. And, when you’re in this game, you’ve got to be able to overcome the loss of key players. And that means from a coaching standpoint and a playing standpoint.”
Senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery blocked Clemson’s extra point attempt, making it a 9-3 game, but the Irish were unable to take advantage, going three-and-out. They were able to provide a defensive stop, ending Clemson’s drive with a sack by junior defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji for a loss of seven yards, forcing the Tigers to attempt a 49-yard field goal, which missed wide left.
Once again, the Irish failed to take advantage and the Tigers used their next possession for their next big play.
Lawrence gradually advanced the Clemson offense up the field, aided by a 16-yard completion to graduate student wider receiver Hunter Renfrow. A holding call on Vaughn pushed Clemson into Notre Dame territory, and then Lawrence found Ross again for a 42-yard touchdown, handing the Tigers a 16-3 lead with 1:44 remaining in the first half.
It appeared the score would remain as such going into the half, but Clemson’s momentum was strong and Notre Dame’s was nonexistent. The Irish gained only 14 yards on its next possession and gave the Tigers the ball back with 57 seconds left.
Tillery gave the Tigers 15 free yards on a roughing-the-passer call after Lawrence found Renfrow again, this time for 32 yards, a play on which Vaughn was in coverage again.
The Tigers had one shot to score from 19 yards out, and Lawrence did not waste it. He found his sophomore and leading receiver, Tee Higgins, in the back of the end zone, who dropped one foot and made a one-handed catch before rolling out of the back of the end zone, to cause the Irish to enter halftime down by 20.
“I knew it was a fade. I turned my head and knocked the ball out, but he made a great catch,” Vaughn, who was covering Higgins, said.
Despite him being in coverage on a few big plays, Kelly said Vaughn remains one of Notre Dame’s most talented cornerbacks.
“That’s not Donte. What happened was not Donte,” Kelly said. “I’ve seen him cover elite receivers. He’s our longest corner. Very rangey. He’s going to be an incredible player. Just had two tough plays.”
Graduate student center and captain Sam Mustipher said he did not expect the last-second score to affect his squad’s momentum coming out of the half.
“This team never really hangs their head about anything, I didn’t expect them to,” he said. “Obviously it was a dagger. We have to bounce back and respond, and we believed we could do that.”
Love re-entered the game after halftime, having cleared concussion protocol.
“I was trying to get going sooner than they allowed me to,” Love said, explaining that he wanted to go back in the game before the end of the half. But Kelly said he received medical clearance during halftime.
With the return of their star cornerback, the Irish were able to hold the Tigers throughout much of the third quarter, but, at the same time, they were unable to generate anything on the offensive side of the ball.
However, the Tigers struck again with two minutes remaining in the quarter.
Etienne — who had been dormant for most of the game — erupted, breaking loose for a 62-yard touchdown on just the third play of the Clemson possession, as senior linebacker Te’von Coney covered the left side of the field, leaving the middle wide open.
“Yeah, I definitely feel like the game was much closer than the score reflected. It was really a matter, in my opinion, of four or five plays,” Tranquill said. “Defensively, we can’t give up explosive touchdowns. You can’t misfit gaps and allow the running back to hit his head on the goal post running through the Red Sea. You just can’t do those things and win in a playoff. I definitely felt like we shot ourselves in the foot.”
And while Irish senior linebacker Asmar Bilal recovered a fumble on the opening drive of the fourth quarter, the excitement was over and the score remained final at 30-3. The two teams went about the motions and finished the game — the Irish defense kept the Tigers off the board in the fourth — but the Notre Dame’s offense was still incapable of putting together a drive. Lawrence left the game and freshman quarterback Chase Brice entered for the Tigers.
“Clemson was extremely smart and opportunistic in taking advantage of some things schematically today. They did a great job of pushing the ball vertically in some opportunistic situations,” Kelly said. “Offensively, we struggled moving the football today. So those were technical and tactical. I did not feel like there was an overwhelming difference in terms of talent. They have extremely talented players. But if we were better tactically and technically today, if we coached better and we made plays today that we have been making all year, we would have had a pretty darned good football game going in the fourth quarter.”
Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush began to warm up on the sideline for the Irish, to play out his final seconds in an Irish uniform on the field, but the clock expired before he had a chance to take the field a final time, Kelly said.
Ian Book finished the game 17-of-34 for 160 yards, and the Irish offense racked up just 248 yards of total offense, compared to Clemson’s 538.
“It’s hard to win a game when you score three points,” Book said. “And as an offense, we’ve just got to do better. And we’ve just got to play the way we’ve played throughout the whole entire year and just control what we could control. And we didn’t need any super-human efforts today. We just needed to do what we’ve been doing all season, and we weren’t able to do that.”
One of Notre Dame’s few bright spots came in the form of junior safety Alohi Gilman, who set a College Football Playoff record with 18 tackles.
“No, I still don’t believe [Clemson is four touchdowns better than Notre Dame], honestly,” Gilman said. “I think we could’ve competed and we definitely could’ve won this game. That’s my honest opinion. It just came down to small details that we didn’t execute. They were physically more dominant than us, a lot faster than us. We didn’t execute the way we were supposed to.”
And while there was a general feeling of hope for the future coming from the players and Kelly, Book summed up the team’s feelings immediately postgame.
“This loss hurts,” Book said. “We’ll worry about next year in a little bit.”