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No. 4 Irish beat No. 1 Tigers in overtime thriller for first win over top-ranked team in Kelly era

| Monday, November 9, 2020

On perhaps the most influential day in American history, Notre Dame beat a top-ranked opponent in Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers. It was the first time the Irish hosted a No. 1 ranked opponent in 15 years and the last time they got a victory over the best in the nation since 1993. The double-overtime slugfest thriller had no dull moments.  

The Irish got off to a quick start as the first legal play saw sophomore running back Kyren Williams take it 65 yards to the house to give the Irish an early 7-0 lead just seconds into the game. Clemson would make an error on the following kickoff and muffed the kick, their first drive would start from their own six-yard line. After a quick first down, the Irish were able to halt the Tiger offense and get the ball back with great field position. But the next time their offense would reach the endzone was not until 22 seconds remained in the game. Irish senior placekicker Jonathan Doerer would hit a 24-yard field goal to cushion the Irish lead, 10-0. Clemson struck back with a 53-yard touchdown but Doerer went four for five on field goal attempts with a 45-yard long to keep the Irish in it throughout the night as their offense struggled to find the endzone. But Clemson’s junior kicker B.T. Potter went 4-4 to keep the game neck and neck. 

The Notre Dame defense absolutely shut down Tigers senior running back Travis Etienne and the rush game overall holding Clemson to 34 net rush yards on 33 attempts. On the flip side Irish sophomore running back, Kyren Williams rushed for 140 yards on 23 carries and found the endzone on three separate occasions. Etienne led the Tigers with 28 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea executed his gameplan to perfection and forced freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei to air it out for 439 yards and two touchdowns. It was expected that both Lea and Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables would force their opposition to throw the ball but the contrast of success was shocking, to say the least. While Notre Dame’s offensive line seemed to be able to will their way down the field, Clemson struggled immensely to even get the ball back to scrimmage on run plays.

Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics

A group of Irish defenders swarm the Tigers ball carrier during the 47-40 Notre Dame win against Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

The Irish would get down inside Clemson’s ten again on their next drive but failed to convert on third down and Doerer banged home a 27-yarder to give the Irish a 13-7 lead over the Tigers. Etienne would field the subsequent kickoff and was met early by junior linebacker Jack Lamb, the Tigers would start this drive from their own 12. Clemson worked the ball down the field but were forced to settle for a field goal. Notre Dame would punt on their next possession but the Irish defense and one player, in particular, Jerimiah Owusu-Koramoah stepped up and made a pair of game-changing plays. Owusu-Koramoah flew in from his outside linebacker position and snatched a toss that bounced off Etienne’s fingers and took it to the house for his first career touchdown and the Irish defenses first of the year giving the Irish a healthy 20-10 lead. Three plays later the senior linebacker forced another fumble that would eventually result in a Doerer field goal. 

Clemson would respond with a field goal to start the second half as Potter drilled one from 46 yards out. They would force an Irish three and out and Uiagalelei would then throw his second touchdown pass of the night, knotting the game up at 23-23. The teams traded field goals once more to start the fourth quarter and with 9:42 left in regulation, it was still all square, 26-26. The Tigers would drive down the field after forcing another three and out and Etienne would find the endzone from three yards out to give the Tigers a 33-26 lead. Notre Dame received the ball with 3:33 left, if Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book would have one moment to shine it would have to be this drive so everyone thought or maybe there was an alternate route. The Irish would go three and out and give the ball to Clemson who still maintained a one-score lead with 2:10 left. Owusu-Koramoah and senior linebacker Drew White would give the Irish offense one last chance though as they came up with a few big plays that forced the Tigers to give it up with 1:48 on the clock for Ian Book and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to work with.

Notre Dame would start their game-tying drive own backed up all the way from their own nine-yard line. 8 plays, 1:26 and 91 yards later Book found senior wide receiver Avery Davis open for a game-saving touchdown. 

As thrilling as it was to see Book finally able to piece together a game-tying drive over a big-time opponent the game was really put on ice by Clark Lea’s defense in overtime, well the second one that is. Although they allowed the Tigers to get down to the one-yard line on what was originally called a touchdown but overturned on the very first play in overtime, Williams would find the endzone on Notre Dame’s turn to keep the Irish alive and then once again in the second overtime to give them the lead. The Irish defense would seal the game here. 

The sound in the stadium began to rise long before the ball was even snapped. A roar, a swarming Irish pass rush and more roars emanated from the 11,011 strong that sounded a lot more like 80,000. As the Tigers faced a second and nineteen reality was beginning to set in. The crowd shook the stadium as Uiagalelei dropped back to throw, graduate student defensive end Daelin Hayes gashed into the Tigers backfield and found another sack, Clemson was thirty-nine yards away from staying alive. Students knew what was about to happen and crowded the walls surrounding the field. As the clock hit zero Notre Dame students leaped from the walls and rushed the field. The Fighting Irish had just defeated their first top-ranked opponent in 27 years, long before the lives of the students who were now flooding the field began. 

Kelly was asked about the field storming, something he foresaw long before the final decision. 

“Our students were awesome. They made it feel like a true game,” Kelly said. “When they stormed the field you got a sense of a special moment at Notre Dame. I know our players did as well. I think what made it even more special was what I had alluded to earlier was just the resolve. I had told our team in our walkthrough today … ‘Listen I just want you to know when we win this thing the fans are gonna storm the field.’

Plenty of people counted the Irish out of this game even with Trevor Lawrence on the sidelines. Kelly said that his team was not celebrating because they were counted out but because they had fought to beat the top-ranked team in the country in a double-overtime instant classic. It was not so much about proving doubters wrong but more so about finding faith in themselves. 

“Look, all the narratives that are out there and whatever is said, talked about, that doesn’t help you win this game.  What we’re excited about and what we’re celebrating is that we played with an incredible focus and resolve. Those are things that we work on to try to be successful and win football games,” Kelly said. “We’re not celebrating because we showed the world or we changed the narrative or we did this because they were the No. 1 team in the country. We did it because we proved something to ourselves, and that’s really satisfying and that’s what we’re celebrating.”

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