Two years ago, Notre Dame shocked the world by defeating Clemson in South Bend, causing Irish fans to storm the field in celebration. On Saturday, they had that chance again and took it, as the Irish knocked off No. 4 Clemson 35-14 in decisive fashion behind a dominant run game and a strong defensive performance. Here are five of the most important moments that led to an unpredictable Irish team’s biggest win of the season.
Botelho blocks punt, Kollie takes it to the house
Notre Dame entered the game having blocked five punts on the year, tied for first in the nation. It did not take the Irish long to block their sixth. Notre Dame received the opening kickoff, and the Irish offense picked up one first down before punting in a short first drive. On offense for the first time, Clemson looked to get the ball to the edge with a series of screens and toss plays, but a pair of holding penalties forced the Tigers into a three-and-out.
With Clemson set to punt from their own 21-yard line, Notre Dame junior linebacker Jordan Botelho ran untouched through two rows of Tiger punt protection and blocked the attempt straight into the air. It fell into the waiting hands of Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie, who raced into the endzone, aided by a huge block from Botelho at the goal line. The play set a Notre Dame record for most blocked punts in a single season and gave the Irish a 7-0 advantage early in the first quarter as Notre Dame’s punt block unit continues to be a difference maker for the team.
Estime takes over to close out the first half
With Notre Dame’s first touchdown having come from special teams, the Irish offense did not draw blood for the majority of the first half. After a Clemson punt put Notre Dame at their own 22-yard line midway through the second quarter, the Irish leaned on sophomore running back Audric Estime to double their lead. Estime entered the game coming off a 123-yard, two-touchdown performance against Syracuse but carried the ball just four times in Notre Dame’s first several possessions.
On the first play of the drive, junior quarterback Drew Pyne handed it off to Estime, who picked up 13 yards. After three rushes from junior running back Chris Tyree that picked up 17 yards, Estime provided a spark again. On a crucial third down, Estime broke several tackles to pick up 11 yards. He followed that up with three straight carries that gained another 11 yards. With the Clemson defense on their heels, Pyne used a scramble, a completion to junior tight end Michael Mayer and a designed quarterback keeper to put the Irish in the endzone again in the final seconds of the half. Estime’s 35 rushing yards on the drive got the Irish offense rolling and helped Notre Dame take a two-possession lead into halftime.
Irish defense dominant to start second half
Despite Notre Dame’s strong first half, Clemson entered the third quarter with a chance to cut the Irish lead to just seven in their opening possession. The Notre Dame defense, though, had no intention of letting that happen. After a Notre Dame facemask on the first play of the half gave Clemson a first down on their own 44-yard line, an incompletion and short gain from running back Will Shipley left the Tigers with a key third and five. With Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei dropping back to pass, Notre Dame senior linebacker J.D. Bertrand picked up his second sack of the season to force a Clemson punt.
Following the punt, the Irish picked up three first downs, but eventually punted around midfield, pinning Clemson on their own goal line. The Tigers gained over 40 yards on the drive, but with Uiagalelei looking to pass on third down, Notre Dame freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison swooped in to break up the pass and force another Clemson punt. The Irish offense’s quiet start to the half gave Clemson an opportunity to get back in the game but timely defensive plays from the veteran Bertrand and freshman Morrison held off the Tigers’ attack.
Morrison interceptions provide insurance for the Irish
After Notre Dame was forced to punt from Clemson territory again late in the third quarter, the Tigers started another possession in the shadow of their end zone. After a first down handoff, the first pass of the game from backup quarterback Cade Klubnik was intercepted by Morrison as he continued to terrorize the Clemson offense (regardless of who was throwing the passes). The interception was the first of Morrison’s career and gave the Irish the ball in the red zone with all the momentum on their side. Just as they had done all game, Notre Dame kept the ball on the ground as they looked to take a three-possession lead. Carries from Estime and Pyne gave the Irish first and goal from the 2-yard line, and Estime punched it in for his ninth touchdown of the season to make the score 21-0 in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Desperately needing a touchdown to stay in the game, Clemson seemed likely to get one as they quickly drove the length of the field with Uiagalelei back in the game. Two pass interference calls and one holding penalty, all on the Irish, gave Clemson a total of 40 yards. Inside the red zone, Clemson receiver Joseph Ngata was streaking to the endzone, but Uiagalelei’s underthrown pass was intercepted by Morrison, who was in the midst of the best game of his young career. Following his blocks, Morrison returned the interception 96 yards for a touchdown, giving the Irish an insurmountable 28-0 lead and capping off his incredible performance on the big stage.
Mayer breaks record as Irish win
Notre Dame has long been known for its elite tight ends, with the likes of Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph and Cole Kmet donning Irish jerseys in the last few years alone. After Saturday’s game, though, Irish junior Michael Mayer stands alone as the greatest tight end in Notre Dame history. With the game well in hand, Pyne connected with Mayer for a 17-yard touchdown that made the score 35-7 and gave Mayer his 16th career touchdown, breaking Notre Dame’s tight end record that was previously held by Eifert. Mayer now holds the triple crown of career records, boasting more touchdowns, yards and receptions than any tight end in Notre Dame history. He will soon be headed to the NFL Draft, but there is now no disputing Michael Mayer as the best in the position to ever don the blue and gold.