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Adams: Old habits die hard

| Monday, December 21, 2020

Sure, Notre Dame lost to Clemson by 27 points in 2018, but Alabama lost by 28 to the Tigers in the national championship.

One point. A one-point difference. That’s what many, myself included, held onto as evidence that the Irish weren’t that far off from college football’s top tier. They just ran into a historically great team with a generational quarterback, and they had the misfortune of having a starting cornerback go out with an injury which allowed the Tigers to create separation in the second quarter. Otherwise, it was a stalemate.

This wasn’t a stalemate at any point outside of a first quarter Kyle Hamilton interception that, at the time, felt long overdue. Turns out it was Notre Dame expending all of the good karma they had built up in one play. After that it was:

Jonathan Doerer doinking a chip shot field goal off the right upright;

Shaun Crawford getting picked on by Trevor Lawrence and Amari Rodgers;

Ian Book running for his life — if he actually managed to escape a sack — behind an offensive line that was overmatched on the scale of the 2019 debacle in Ann Arbor and the 2017 fiasco in Coral Gables;

And Travis Etienne getting his due after Notre Dame’s defense got the better of him in their first meeting six weeks ago.

Twenty-seven points was now 28 points with 3:43 to go in the third quarter Saturday. Following two Notre Dame three-and-outs the defense met a breaking point — a familiar theme for a unit tasked with the unfair responsibility of making up for an offense prone to sticking its head in the sand when met with superior talent. Turns out a generational quarterback can get even better from where he was two years ago when he led his team to 11 of its 15 wins in an undefeated season and a combined 45-point margin of victory over their two postseason opponents. Turns out the gap between Notre Dame and Clemson — a gap that everyone felt was smaller than the final score in 2018 suggested — required a caveat:

The gap was narrowed between Notre Dame’s starters and Clemson’s backups.

Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book is sacked by Tigers redshirt sophomore defensive end K.J. Henry during Notre Dame’s 34-10 loss to Clemson on Dec. 19 in the ACC Championship game. After going 22-39 for 310 yards and a touchdown against Clemson on Nov. 7, Book went just 20-28 for 219 yards, plus six sacks and no scores in the rematch.

The Irish beat a five-star quarterback making his second career start on the road. They beat a team with three defensive starters out. And it took two overtimes to do it.

They went 59 minutes between offensive touchdowns six weeks ago. They didn’t record a touchdown Saturday night.

Guess what, I wrote that last sentence with 10:31 to go in the fourth quarter and Notre Dame about to receive a kickoff. That’s how little faith I had in this Notre Dame team, but Chris Tyree managed to record a 21-yard touchdown run to save a little bit of face and make the score 34-10.

I say I had little faith, but perhaps I should say that it shows just how much faith I do have. I have faith in the truism that old habits die hard and how it rings far too true for this Notre Dame team. Case and point:

  • Ian Book, after showing elite play against Clemson the first time around and in the three regular season games that followed, reverted back to the same, scared quarterback who crumbled in the Cotton Bowl in 2018 and Michigan in 2019. Three years of starting experience only helped him to pick and choose his spots so that he finished 20-of-28 passing instead of 17-of-34 or 8-of-25.
  • Notre Dame once more lost on the biggest of stages. They haven’t won a road or neutral site game against a top-15 opponent since 2012 (at Oklahoma), and the average margin of defeat is double-digits.
  • Notre Dame once again rolled out a bunch of players that are not on the same level as those at Clemson, Alabama or Ohio State. A three-star quarterback couldn’t make anything happen, a Northwestern transfer starting at wide receiver was a non-factor and a quarterback-turned-cornerback-turned-running back-turned-wide receiver dropped a key (catchable) fourth down pass (from the aforementioned three-star quarterback) when the game was still competitive.
  • For the second time in the last three games against Clemson, Notre Dame folded in the second quarter and found themselves on the losing end of a halftime margin of 20+ points.
  • Brian Kelly and his staff were once more out-coached. Credit to Clark Lea for continuing to coach the Irish despite being announced as Vanderbilt’s next head coach, and he held Clemson under their expected 34.5 points per game, but that’s mainly because Dabo Swinney called off the dogs. Tommy Rees, on the other hand, was thoroughly outdone by Brent Venables after just narrowly getting the better of him on Nov. 7.
  • And, this isn’t totally on the Irish, but history has a funny habit of repeating itself. Prior to Saturday and since the AP Poll’s inception, three teams had met twice as top-five opponents. In every instance, the team that lost the first meeting won the second by at least 21 points. Now you can make it four matchups adhering to that trend after Clemson’s 24-point win over Notre Dame.

And despite all of that, Notre Dame somehow still made the College Football Playoff. Their reward? A rematch of the 2013 BCS national championship between the Irish and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Ken Ruinard | USA TODAY Sports
Irish graduate student Shaun Crawford chases Tigers senior wide receiver Amari Rodgers in a futile effort to stop a score during Notre Dame’s 34-10 loss to Clemson on Dec. 19 in the ACC Championship. Rodgers converted a 67-yard touchdown on the play, one of several instances where the Tigers picked on Crawford for Rodgers’ speed advantage over the sixth-year, injury-riddled converted safety.

To be clear, I think this is the right decision by the committee. Notre Dame had one more win over a top-25 opponent than Texas A&M, and their best win was not only against a better team (Clemson) than A&M’s (Florida), but it was against the only team that beat the Irish this year and they beat the Irish by less (24) than the Tide beat the Aggies (28).

That said, it seems like old habits are destined to rear their head. Sure, Notre Dame is in a better place from a physical standpoint now, especially along the offensive line, than they were the last time they played Alabama. But let’s be real: Nick Saban and his staff are the best or, at worst, second-best in college football.

Clark Lea is a great defensive coordinator and Tommy Rees has been a pleasant surprise this season, but Alabama’s offense is on another level and Notre Dame’s offense does not have the personnel — nor, apparently, the inclination — to open up in such a way that it takes pressure off of their defense.

And yet, as I have said repeatedly, old habits persist. My own habit of getting excited and cultivating a sense of hope that the Irish will win against a superior opponent will happen once more. (Even as I write this, I am envisioning a scenario where Notre Dame miraculously upsets Alabama and Ohio State topples Clemson for a national championship matchup I would feel extremely positive about).

That’s all well and good. However, the fact of the matter is that, from here on out, the Irish are underdogs, and that’s a reality I have to accept. I have to let go of that one-point consolation prize I held after the 2018 Cotton Bowl. I’m going on the record right now and saying that, for the remainder of this season, I will be ceasing my habit of picking the Irish to win — something I have done in 23 of 24 games as a member of the football beat.

As sad as it may seem, I finally have to start listening to my head over my heart. But what can I say? Some old habits are meant to be laid to rest.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden