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One-and-done: Conference stint comes to close with ACC title game loss to Clemson

| Saturday, December 19, 2020

Editor’s note: since this article was published Notre Dame has been announced as one of four teams to make the College Football Playoff.

It all looked so promising.

A No. 2 ranking nationally. An undefeated regular season. A win over the previous No. 1 team in the country under their belt. A presumptive locked-in spot in the College Football Playoff — barring an unexpected blowout.

The thing about the unexpected is that, by definition, it isn’t expected.

Notre Dame didn’t expect to miss a 24-yard field goal off of a drive which began by intercepting Trevor Lawrence — sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton’s first interception of the season. They didn’t expect to start the game 2-2 on third down before going without a conversion on their next eight tries. They didn’t expect their receivers who had been coming along so nicely — with two of them recording three-touchdown games apiece since beating Clemson on Nov. 7 — to lay an egg on the biggest of stages.

Notre Dame (10-1, 9-1 ACC) didn’t expect to find themselves, from a statistical perspective, in worse shape than they were nearly two years ago: down 24-3 at halftime — compared to 23-3 in the 2018 Cotton Bowl that included a blocked extra point attempt by that Irish team — and with no offensive momentum to speak of.

Graduate student quarterback Ian Book was 9-11 for 131 yards in the first half. Whereas in a typical game Book would have had a worse completion percentage because he would have taken some risks, there were no risks taken Saturday.

Whether it was because receivers weren’t open or because they weren’t open enough for Book’s liking, the Irish had nothing of substance going on in the passing game the entire night. The running game wasn’t doing anything to take pressure off either.

Book was running for his life and was sacked more times (five) on third down throughout the game than the Irish actually converted third downs (three). Offensive lineman were being run over by Clemson’s (10-1, 9-1 ACC) replenished defensive front.

Things happened to Notre Dame that haven’t been happening to them in 2020.

The Irish weren’t expecting to find themselves in a worse position with 3:43 to go in the third quarter Saturday than they were with 2:04 to go in the third quarter of the 2018 Cotton Bowl. A Trevor Lawrence touchdown run made it 31-3 Clemson, one more point added to a margin that had been on the minds of Notre Dame players, fans and media since Dec. 29, 2018.

It took a player who wasn’t on the roster at that time — freshman running back Chris Tyree — to snap the Irish out of their shell-shocked state and record a touchdown, bringing about the final score of 34-10. Now many will wonder if that score is enough to convince the College Football Playoff Committee that the Irish deserve a spot in the Playoff.

Ken Ruinard | USA TODAY Sports
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book picks himself up off the ground after being sacked on third down by Clemson graduate student linebacker James Skalski. The Tigers recorded six sacks on Book behind an offensive line that felt the loss of junior center Jarrett Patterson.

On that topic, what say you, Brian Kelly?

“We’ve got two top-15 wins, we’ve got a win over this Clemson team that was number one in the country. I don’t know that anybody has a resume that has those two wins,” the Irish head coach said. “We’ve played 11 games. I mean, that matters. Testing your team week-in and week-out; I think that, in my mind, puts us without question as one of the top-four teams in the country.”

And you, Book?

“I mean, I think we belong in [the Playoff],” Book said. “It’s our first loss. We played 11 football games, that’s a lot of football games. We beat the number one team, beat the No. 15 team on the road, so I think we deserve it. I think tonight wasn’t our night. Everybody who’s played football before understands there’s bad nights, and that was tonight.”

And you, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney?

Regardless of what these individuals may say, the fact of the matter is they have no control over what happens to the Irish on Sunday. This performance was the worst-case scenario for the Irish, who now hang their hat on a win over the team that just beat them, except that win came with the Tigers missing four starters, one of whom was Lawrence.

Lawrence finished the game 25-36 for 322 yards through the air and rushed 14 times for 90 yards; 412 total yards is the second-most all-time in the ACC Championship, surpassed only by former Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson’s 420 in 2015. To Notre Dame’s credit, senior kicker Jonathan Doerer set the record for longest field goal in ACC Championship game history with a 51-yarder, beating the previous record-holder by one yard.

Travis Etienne, after being held to just 28 yards against Notre Dame the first time around, rushed for 124 yards and a score.

The Irish won the turnover battle 1-0, despite three fumbles of their own that they recovered, had only two penalties to Clemson’s five and won the time of possession battle by nearly four minutes — and still came away with so big a loss.

Swinney made the point on College Gameday earlier Saturday that the team who won the turnover battle and made more big plays would win. He was right on the latter account.

Clemson had 16 plays of at 10+ yards to Notre Dame’s nine. Clemson had nine plays of 20+ yards to Notre Dame’s four. Clemson had three plays of 30+ yards to Notre Dame’s one 30-yard passing play.

In the end, winning the game was not of major consequence. Many felt the Irish proved enough to make the Playoff so long as they looked competitive in their rematch with the Tigers, and they looked anything but. Now, the ball is in the committee’s court, and all Kelly and co. can do is offer closing arguments for a season whose success will be determined within a matter of hours.

“I think you look at the body of work in terms of what we’ve done all year,” Kelly said. “We played 11 games, beat two top-15 teams. We obviously lost to the No. 3-ranked team in the country tonight. It wasn’t our best effort, but consistently, when you play 11 games, and you have a win over the No. 1 team in the country, and then you win against an outstanding North Carolina team — I don’t know that you need to look any further than that.”

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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.

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