Notre Dame doomed by perimeter deficiencies and quarterback play
Joe Everett | Sunday, December 30, 2018
ARLINGTON, Texas — One of the oldest sayings in football is that the game is won or lost in the trenches.
And while the sentiment still rings true in many respects, on Saturday afternoon inside AT&T Stadium, and throughout Clemson’s 30-3 win over Notre Dame, the real difference between the Tigers (14-0, 8-0 ACC) and the Irish (12-1) revealed itself on the perimeter and in the passing game.
Although the scoring margin was similar, Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Clemson was dissimilar to its 2012 rout at the hands of Alabama — where Brian Kelly’s squad was physically dominated in every aspect of the national championship game. Instead, the Irish thought, and for a time showed, that they stacked up pretty well with Clemson from a strength perspective up front.
“I mean, physically, in the first quarter I just felt — me and [senior linebacker] Te’von [Coney] were talking — we felt personally so much stronger than our opponent,” Irish graduate student linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “We felt like we were stuffing the run game. Play speed was not overwhelming for us — we see it everyday from our guys in practice. I’ve played in games where I felt like we don’t necessarily match up athletically with these guys — I didn’t feel that today. I thought it was a lack of execution more than anything, guys were in position for big-play opportunities down the field, and their receiver made a play instead of us.”
Indeed, one team made the plays it’s used to making. The other did not.
Clemson true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence outplayed Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book by a wide margin, completing 27 of his 39 passes for 327 yards, three touchdowns and committing no turnovers. Book, by contrast, finished the game 17-of-34 for 160 yards with one interception and one lost fumble. A few different factors contributed to the disparity of those two stat lines.
The first, and perhaps the most obvious, stemmed from the loss of Notre Dame’s consensus All-American junior cornerback and Jim Thorpe finalist Julian Love to a head injury, which kept him out of the entire second quarter. Junior Donte Vaughn stepped in as the boundary corner, and quickly got picked on.
Lawrence first found fellow true freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross down the sideline for a 52-yard touchdown pass, as Vaughn was unable to locate the ball in the air and failed to tackle Ross after the catch. Two drives later, the Clemson quarterback found Ross again, down the seam for a 42-yard touchdown, after it appeared Vaughn turned him inside, a move not expected by junior safety Alohi Gilman, who was subsequently beat in coverage. Then, in the final seconds of the first half, Higgins went up against Vaughn and made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone, catching the ball with one hand while simultaneously landing one foot in-bounds for a 19-yard touchdown that stunned the Irish heading into halftime.
In one quarter, with one player out, the game swung 20 points. Lawrence was 13-of-15 for 229 yards (15.3 YPA) and three touchdowns in the second quarter without Love in the game. In contrast, the five-star recruit was 14-of-24 for 98 yards (4.1 YPA) and no touchdowns when Love was in the game.
“Obviously a guy like Julian Love — it’s hard to replace him — but at the same time we still had confidence in Donte,” Gilman said postgame. “Julian is Julian, so it’s hard to replace someone like that. They just executed on the plays that they needed to … we just didn’t execute as a defense.”
Overall, Notre Dame lacked the necessary depth of talent at cornerback against the Tigers, and it cost them. While Clemson was able to overcome the loss of All-American junior defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence by replacing him with future NFL talent in senior Albert Huggins and others, there tends to be a significant drop-off in talent and execution between the starters and the backups for Notre Dame. That’s a significant difference between the two programs right now.
The second factor was that Clemson’s wide receivers made more plays than Notre Dame’s did. While junior Chase Claypool flat-out dropped what would have been a first-down pass on the first drive, and while senior Miles Boykin was consistently unable to out-run Clemson’s defensive backs or even elevate for jump-balls, Clemson’s Ross and Higgins won their matchups and made highlight-reel plays.
“We talk about playmakers making plays, and on those balls downfield their guy just went up over our guy and made the play,” Tranquill said.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly echoed the need for players to deliver in tough situations, and noted that the coaching staff needed to better equip the team for those occasions.
“The players have got to make plays, and coaches have to put players in a position to make plays. And that’s just being real,” Kelly said postgame. “So this is about coaching and players. In these games, when you lose key players, coaches have got to step up and players have got to step up.”
And while Notre Dame ultimately fell short with its speed and explosive playmaking ability at the wide receiver position, it badly needed elite quarterback play if it were to have a shot with the receivers it had.
It couldn’t get elite quarterback play from Ian Book.
Throughout almost the entire game, the junior quarterback looked shaky and nervous in the pocket, unable to progress through his reads and capitalize when the opportunity presented itself. He lost a fumble on the second drive, leading to Clemson’s first points of the game.
While Clemson’s defensive line came after him all night, the 6-foot Book — as contrasted with the 6-foot-5 Lawrence — was unable to stand tall in pocket and deliver balls with accuracy. Instead, he was often forced to abandon his reads within seconds and try to scramble for yards. And while Book faced immense pressure, Lawrence himself was also sacked three times and was often flushed from the pocket. The difference in the two quarterbacks on Saturday was their ability to take advantage when the opportunities presented themselves and deliver accurate balls. Lawrence could, and Book couldn’t.
“He made every throw,” Gilman said postgame of Lawrence. “He was calm, cool, collected. Much respect to him, he’s going to be a great player — he has a bright future ahead of him.”
For all the talk pre-game about how Clemson’s one weakness was its secondary, Notre Dame’s wide receivers and quarterbacks were unable to gain an advantage. On defense, it was lack of secondary depth that was unable to match up with Clemson’s perimeter talent.
For a school that always recruits well in the trenches, Notre Dame’s deficiencies on the perimeter and at key skill positions didn’t match up with Clemson’s. While Notre Dame may be progressing toward building itself as a national powerhouse, Saturday showed it still has key position areas to improve in if it ever wants to get there. Perhaps it already has those individuals waiting on the wings, with a freshman class that includes quarterback Phil Jurkovec; wide receivers Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Kevin Austin; and cornerbacks Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen.
It may be those skill position players that help bridge the final gap between Notre Dame and the college football elite.