History of the matchup: Notre Dame vs. Clemson
Tyler Reidy | Thursday, November 2, 2023
Not once have Notre Dame and Clemson played a meaningless football game. In each of the schools’ previous seven meetings, some combination of postseason hopes, program-building and national legitimacy has been on the line. In fact, each of their five matchups since 2015 has featured at least one top-six team in the rankings.
Clemson leads the all-time series 4-3, with blowout wins over the Irish in the 2018 Cotton Bowl and 2020 ACC Championship. But Notre Dame has won back-to-back regular season duels, including a thrashing of the Tigers in South Bend just last year. With 7-2 Notre Dame and 4-4 Clemson set to clash again Saturday at Memorial Stadium, here’s a look into their 46-year history on the gridiron.
1977: Notre Dame 21, Clemson 17
Notre Dame first visited Death Valley during its 1977 national championship season. The November matchup featured two top-15 squads led by a pair of future Super Bowl champions, Notre Dame’s Joe Montana and Clemson’s Steve Fuller. With one loss on the season, the fifth-ranked Irish needed a win to continue their title chase.
That win grew uncertain as the afternoon wore on, and Clemson entered the fourth quarter with a 17-7 lead. But Montana and the Irish woke up while down two scores. Notre Dame embarked on a touchdown drive that spanned 119 yards, as head coach Dan Devine’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty forced the Irish to convert a second-and-31. After Clemson turned the ball over on the ensuing drive, Montana punched in the go-ahead score himself.
Devine’s berating of linesman Bill Cummings became quite the storyline itself. He had interfered with a Notre Dame tackler on an earlier Clemson touchdown on fourth down, later calling the clipping infraction that preceded Devine’s penalty. After the game, the Irish coach called Cummings “a disgrace to football.” However, all was well that ended well, as Notre Dame stood atop the college football world for the 10th time two months later.
1979: Clemson 16, Notre Dame 10
In a reversal of the ‘77 game, Clemson pulled off a few stunning feats in South Bend. First, the Tigers handed the Irish a Senior Day loss, a result that had occurred just twice since 1940. Clemson also did it with a 31-year-old head coach in Danny Ford, a future national champion. His winning game plan? Run the football 74 times, an opponent record in Notre Dame Stadium at the time.
Despite accumulating 295 total yards in the first half, Notre Dame only led 10-0 at halftime. Clemson then commandeered the football, possessing it for more than 21 of the game’s final 30 minutes. Billy Lott, on a “Counter 28 Option” play, rushed for the third-quarter score that gave Clemson the lead for good.
Like the Irish’s Benjamin Morrison in 2022, a young cornerback closed out a Notre Dame-Clemson game in 1979. Redshirt freshman Terry Kinard intercepted two fourth-quarter passes, protecting the Tigers’ six-point advantage. Twenty-two years later, his name would be immortalized in South Bend as a College Football Hall of Fame inductee.
2015: Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22
Long before Notre Dame’s field-stormings, Clemson had its signature moment on a monsoon-like night in Death Valley. And unlike the Irish triumphs of the 2020s, this win immediately changed the victor’s course. In fact, it marked the birth of Clemson’s run as a perennial power in college football.
No. 6 Notre Dame couldn’t have opened the game much worse. By the midway point of the first quarter, No. 12 Clemson led 14-0, outgaining the visitors 104-0. An Irish fumble on the second-half-opening kickoff deepened the wound, pushing the Tigers ahead 21-3.
But Brian Kelly’s team showed admirable resolve, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter. The final push, a one-yard touchdown grab by Torii Hunter Jr., gave Notre Dame the chance to tie on a two-point conversion with seven seconds left. Down 24-22, quarterback DeShone Kizer took his designed run into a wall of orange, effectively ending the game.
“Tonight it was BYOG, bring your own guts,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney famously said after the win. Over the next four seasons, the Tigers would bring home two national championships.
2020: Notre Dame 47, Clemson 40
Three years removed, it’s easy to forget how different college football looked during the 2020 season. For Notre Dame, pandemic-induced restrictions went beyond crowds thinning out to 10,000. The Irish participated in the season as a member of the ACC and later played in the Rose Bowl … in Dallas.
But for just one night, everything felt perfect. No. 1 Clemson met No. 4 Notre Dame in a battle of unbeatens, as the eyes of America descended upon South Bend. The Irish threw the first haymaker, a 65-yard touchdown run from Kyren Williams on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Adding a scoop-and-score in the second quarter, Notre Dame would open up a 23-13 lead at halftime.
Playing without their star quarterback, soon-to-be top NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers roared back. DJ Uiagalelei and his 439 passing yards sent Clemson on a 23-3 scoring run to give them a 33-26 lead late. But even against a Tiger team headed to its sixth consecutive College Football Playoff, Notre Dame was better in the big moments. Ian Book and Avery Davis connected twice during a game-tying two-minute drill. Williams then scored twice after regulation before the Irish defense stonewalled Clemson in double overtime.
Then, like Notre Dame’s pass rush on the final drive, raw emotion overcame the Irish faithful. Fans spilled out onto the field as if the previous eight months of hardship, fear and distancing had never happened. The moment may have defied all logic of the time, but it sure made for an unforgettable scene.
2022: Notre Dame 35, Clemson 14
This windy November night went down as another one of the greatest in recent Notre Dame football history. The Irish, out of the Playoff running with three losses, dominated the unbeaten, fourth-ranked Tigers in every phase of the game. “They just physically kicked our butt. Period,” said Swinney, whose Tigers didn’t score until 10:14 remained in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, the Irish wasted little time, with Prince Kollie scoring on a first-quarter blocked punt. After quarterback Drew Pyne added a rushing touchdown just before halftime, the Benjamin Morrison breakout began. Midway through the second half, the freshman cornerback intercepted two different quarterbacks in less than three minutes. His second pick, off Uiagalelei, went back 96 yards for an iconic touchdown.
Later in the fourth quarter, Michael Mayer found a legendary score of his own. On a 17-yard touchdown pass from Pyne, he broke the career record for receiving touchdowns by a Notre Dame tight end. At the final whistle, the Irish had run all over Clemson (263 rushing yards), and their fans ran all over the field for the second time in three years.